Thursday, December 30, 2010

Some Thoughts about Georgette Heyer Mysteries.

I know that only about .016 of the people who read this blog will actually be interested in this, but that's the beauty of blogging. It's kind of a narcissist's picnic, it doesn't matter if anyone is interested or not.

So, in December I've been reading Georgette Heyer mysteries, of which there are twelve or so. Although I had read everything else by her, I had only read 2 of her mysteries before. This is kind of odd because I have a special fondness for British mysteries written between and just after the world wars. Plus, I have a life-long affection for Georgette Heyer.

When I say 'affection' for Georgette Heyer, let me just add this little anecdote. When I worked at a bookstore, a couple came in and asked me (no pressure) to help them choose a last book, for a friend who was dying. He wanted something he hadn't read before, something with some depth - not a comedy- but not too dark, either. At the time, I thought to myself, if it were me, I would want to reread some Georgette Heyer.

I say this only to let you know how seriously I take my Georgette Heyer. And why it's so odd that I hadn't read her mysteries before.

I've found the Heyer mysteries to be interesting on a number of levels. Which I shall now proceed to enumerate, for the .016 of you who have not yet turned to some other, more rewarding task.

In the first place, they are kind of flawed as mysteries. In the seven I've read so far it's always completely clear to me from the beginning who the murderer is. This is not because I'm brilliant but because of the way Heyer sets things up. The tricks she uses are obvious to me, a veteran reader of this sub-genre, so there's no mystery at all. This does not impair my enjoyment one iota - figuring out whodunnit is not important to me at all.

In the second place, there's a very interesting and rather odd thing she does with her continuing character, Detective Something Beginning With H. Although he's a continuing character, the stories are from the POV of the characters inside the current story. He comes in near the end, to solve the case and he is never developed as a character.

This is quite different from any of the similar mysteries of the same period by Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, or Agatha Christie. In all of their books, the detective is the central character and you get to know him (or her) very well. The books are really as much about them as about the plot.

However, this is more than compensated by some wonderful characters in the books. Particular favorites of mine are the family in Footsteps in the Dark, or the brother and sister in Death In The Stocks (I think that's the one that has the brother and sister.) But I've enjoyed them all.

Except for one, Penhallow, which is a very strange book. I read somewhere that Heyer wrote it in a couple of weeks to fulfill a contractual obligation. There is none of the charm, the fun, the wit I expect from Heyer. And the murderer is never caught. You know who it is, there's no secret about it. But the mystery isn't resolved. In some ways it's not even a mystery - it's more of a study of a horrible family.

It's interesting, too, to read mysteries of this period (Heyer wrote in the 30's to 50's) before forensic science had begun. No DNA, no science of blood spatter or forensic anthropology etc. The most scientific they get is fingerprints. And, even though I don't really bother about whodunnit, I had one teensy weensy moment of irritation, when the detectives seemed to be ignoring the fact that their primary piece of evidence against a character had been wiped completely clean of fingerprints. This went on for chapters before they realized what I had known all along - if it had no fingerprints on it, it was a clear indicator that he was being framed. Duh!

Finally, it has been quite interesting to see Heyer's cast of characters out of regency costume. She has a wide range of characters and she moves them around as needed. The foppish, immaculately dressed and sarcastic man is sometimes a villain (The Reluctant Widow - a Regency) and sometimes a hero and the love interest (Behold Here's Poison - one of my favorite mysteries, and one which I had read before) etc. On the other hand, there are characters in the mysteries who just wouldn't fit into Regencies at all. The worldly wise, slightly damaged heroine of Duplicate Death, just wouldn't work in a Regency. In fact, most of the heroines are too sophisticated and knowing for most of the Regencies. And the lesbian couple and the gay men in Penhallow - well, not in the Regencies. At least, not overtly in the Regencies.

So, that's it. I see that Why Shoot a Butler has finishe downloading on my Kindle, so I'm off to start another one.

1 comment:

Vivi said...

Name of your next blog: The Narcissist's Picnic.

But I am of the .016% who is (are?) interested in this topic. In fact, I am fascinated by her lack of character development of the detective, so unlike Heyer (are there any non-developed characters in her Regencies?) and so dissimilar to the mode of the day. Do you think she was intentionally trying to be different?