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On Georgette Heyer's Debonair, Polished Butchery

Heyer perfected the art of banter and her social engagements on the page often read like David Campton and Edward Albee plays -- sans the existential subversions.


Even a master like Agatha Christie couldn’t orchestrate a countryside butchery with a style so debonair and polished.
Agatha Christie might have cornered the market on the cozy murder mystery in her day, but with the wave of a ringed and powdered hand, Georgette Heyer turned such fare into highbrow farce. Known mostly for her regency romances, which brought her the adulation of British housewives everywhere during the better part of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Heyer was already a household name before she jumped on the Christie bandwagon, along with mystery-lit hopefuls Patricia Wentworth and Margery Allingham. At 19, she wrote her first romance novel, The Black Moth (1921), which became both a critical and commercial success. Along the way, she took up mystery-writing on the side, which was met with moderate but not unwarranted success.

Christie was queen of plot and narrative contraption, orchestrating such tightly knotted riddles in the nefarious actions of her whodunits. Wentworth went for romance with her crimes. And Heyer was pitched somewhere between these two.

Heyer’s mysteries are simplistic designs which are really set ups for a host of staunchly bourgeoisie English-folk who live to deliver salty one-liners. Her murder plots tend to be one and the same all throughout her series; a party is thrown, a wealthy patriarch is murdered, and a culprit is to be singled out amongst the multitude of squabbling relatives. Depending on the story, the singling out is usually done by either Superintendent Hannasyde or Inspector Hemmingway -- and, on occasion, Inspector Harding. Like all cozies of the golden-age era, her books are the sort that goes well with tea and biscuits: light, inoffensive and an indulgence of frivolous afternoon pastimes.

“Heyer’s mysteries are English country house mysteries -- “cozy” is a term that emerged in the late 20th century to designate mysteries in which the “sleuth” is not a professional”, says Deb Werksman, editor of Sourcebooks. “Heyer’s mysteries do, however, have a professional detective. But perhaps the reason Heyer’s mysteries haven’t traveled as far as other authors’ works have is because Heyer wasn’t known as a mystery author to the same extent she was known as a historical romance and historical fiction author. Her real fame is for her historical romances.”

Neither Hannasyde nor Hemmingway reached a level of popularity like Christie’s far more eccentric Poirot and Marple, Wentworth’s stern and reproachful Miss Silver or Allingham’s deceptively innocuous Campion. Heyer’s Hannasyde and Hemingway make themselves fairly practical, undertaking all murderous ordeals with a rather straightforward work ethic. Heyer, however, wisely plays down the efforts of her assiduous detectives so she can do what she does best: play up the supercilious, self-involved reprobates who mark the upper-class with unabashed entitlement. To be clear, no one reads Heyer’s mysteries for their mysteries; they read them to see which of the upper-crust clodpates will make a bigger fool of him or herself.

Heyer never considered her mysteries a true success, at least artistically. They were simply written to pay bills and, perhaps, their lack of invention substantiates her belief. Her true literary vocation was her period romances, which were impeccably researched; Heyer’s richly detailed world of 18th century England won her plaudits and a healthy fanbase. Such attention to detail also found their way into her mysteries, in which the aristocratic world is lavishly introduced with all the dry, mannered engagements of the blue-blooded English elite.

In Behold, Here’s Poison (1936) (a fatuous title, if there ever was one), the wealthy head of Poplar Estate is found dead one morning during the hustle and bustle of an English breakfast. Before the police can arrive, murder is already suspected. Stella, whose murdered father ignites the pugnacious bickering amongst her many relatives, locks horns with distant cousin Randall, who seeks to decimate the family clan with politely delivered and especially ill-timed acerbic remarks. You may find you do not care who’s responsible for the murder, once the familial vitriol begins to spread.

The Unfinished Clue (1934) takes family relations to embarrassingly absurd heights. With a cast of socially in-tune but intellectually-inept kinfolk, Heyer’s comedy of manners strains for the pompadoured reaches of English civility; whether it’s meant to be a satire or a po-faced reading on upper-class mores is beside the point. Her characters are quaint and (by most standards) antiquated, but they exude an air of libertine extravagance. Yet again, another wealthy patriarch of a home estate is murdered. And yet again, another family unit is left to sort through the puzzling aftershocks, this time with the help of Inspector Harding.

At one-third into the novel, there's much talk with nary a murder in sight. Heyer spends much of this time appropriating much of the British backbone of moral fiber through a highly misguided rendering of the lone foreigner character, a Spanish cabaret dancer. Caricaturized to a silly and myopic extreme, Heyer seeks to outline British aristocracy simply through inaccurate comparison, her Spanish dancer an ignorant illustration of “othered” cultures. But it's just this kind of design which makes Heyer’s works, outdated as they are, such a curio.

Once again, the pronouncement is on character and, regardless of how ridiculously over-the-top her cast of suspects may be at times, they are also the bedrock of her comic-mysteries. Often, her depictions of family entanglements are realized with sympathetic familiarity. There are many emotions on display and they all co-ordinate with elegant precision.

“I think Heyer has an extraordinary sense of human nature, and her mysteries are full of complex characters and complicated family dynamics,” Werksman reasons. “Heyer’s characters reflect the best and worst in people, and her cleverness is profound.”

Death in the Stocks (1935), possibly Heyer’s best work in her mystery series, is relayed with wit, charm and an even dose of the plot-centric devices of a Christie whodunit. It’s a classic English manor mystery, but it rises above the genre with the champagne taste of refinement. Even a master like Christie couldn’t orchestrate a countryside butchery with a style so debonair and polished.

Heyer’s other mysteries propagate the same lustrous affairs. A Blunt Instrument (1938) works the thriller continuum with its wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing premise. Yet again we have an estate owned by, this time, a likeable patriarch. Ernest is the murdered patriarch and Hannasyde, who leads the case, suspects that he wasn’t exactly the commendable proprietor everyone has believed him to be. The premise is as old as dirt. But Heyer, once again, makes a point of enriching the narrative with the personality quirks of an eccentric cast: there's something about being stuck in a house full of wayward and distraught gentry that feels rather cozy. Often, discovering the murderer is secondary in these novels; it's the observing of an indicted and wrangling bunch under pressure which makes these stories such compelling reads.

The author does make a slight break from her leading detectives in Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) Hannasyde, Hemingway and Harding are nowhere in sight and a regular joe (really a posh barrister) named Frank takes on the sleuthing duties. On his way to a dinner party, Frank stops to help a young woman in distress, anxiously waiting by her car on the side of the road. Inside the driver’s seat sits a dead body. Frank is a preened and sharp man who possesses what many refer to as “British dry wit”. It isn’t so much as who is responsible for the body in the car that captures attention as it is Frank’s smarmy rejoinders. Heyer has perfected the art of banter and her social engagements on the page often read like David Campton and Edward Albee plays -- sans the existential subversions.

In these novels, Heyer was often criticized for her plots. Many critics noted the long-running similarities in all of her mysteries, which just about always included an estate occupied by a disgruntled and murderous family. It was also reported that much of Heyer’s ideas were actually those of her husband’s, who provided her the plot structures; Heyer would simply work with the templates given, investing in them her incredible wit and her marvellous way with her manicured and patriciate prose. But even today they remain tasteful guilty pleasures that ring (and occasionally sting) with the wit of a true master, optioning murder in the comedy of manners.

“[Heyer’s novels] are enormously fun to read because it’s difficult to figure out who the murderer is -- usually there are many characters with motive, if not means,” Werksman says. “Every one of her mysteries is a wonderful read, and some are transcendent.”

Georgette Heyer

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