Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer
This is my first reading of the prolific Ms. Heyer, and I would never have read this book were it not for the Classics Circuit. She is known as the Queen of the Regency romances, and apparently her books are incredibly well-researched and historically accurate. However, I'm not a big fan of romances, so I was ready to pass on Heyer until I found out she wrote some sassy murder mysteries as well. And as I am terribly fond of Agatha Christie, and British novels of the prewar era in general, I was happy to sign up.
So! Behold, Here's Poison is a light, fun mystery novel of the classic sort: a bunch of people are all staying at a large British mansion, and somebody gets knocked off -- in this case, the head of the family, Gregory Matthew, who naturally controls all the money; ergo, everyone else's life hangs in the balance. Residents in the house, aka potential suspects, include his spinster sister, the dithering Harriet; his sister-in-law Zoe, widow of his youngest brother; and her two adult children: Guy, whom Sir Gregory was shipping off to Brazil because of bad business decisions; and the lovely and charming Stella, who was thisclose to marrying the local doctor until Sir Gregory got all up in her business. Also lots of servants, naturally.
Other characters/potential suspects include Gregory's other sister, the overbearing Mrs. Gertrude Lupton, and her henpecked husband, who live just down the block (so to speak); Randall, the heir apparent (son of the other dead brother); plus the doctor/fiancee, and some friends and neighbors. Following all this? At first, I couldn't. I actually got out paper and pen and began drawing up a chart of the family and who belonged to whom, first time I've ever needed to do this for a murder mystery novel. Heyer does a good job of creating distinctive characters -- even the dead guy's personality. It became pretty obvious that Sir Gregory had more money than charm -- pretty much the whole household had a nice motive to kill him, which is as it should be in country house murders. However, they're sort of thrown at the reader all in a lump, which put me off reading it -- I started the first few pages and got confused and annoyed, then put it down for several weeks. However, I'm glad I picked it up again. Heyer is pretty funny, and the book is a nice light respite from Victorian writers, books about racism and serial killers, etc.
Though it was written about the same time as Christie's early novels, the two writers have little in common. The detective in this novel has barely any personality at all -- though he goes through the motions of sleuthing, he barely registered with me, and I can't even remember his name. (I looked it up; it's Superintendant Hannasyde). Heyer's real strength is her upper-class characters -- she's funny and witty and pretty snarky, and the characters are too. Here's a description of one of Gregory's sisters, the formidable Mrs. Lupton:
She was a massively built woman of about fifty-five, extremely upright, and reinforced wherever possible with whalebone. She even wore it inserted into the net fronts which invariably encased her throat. Her hats always had wide brims and very high crowns, and her face powder was faintly tinted with mauve. She had been the nearest to Gregory Matthews in age of all his family, and the most like him in temperament. Both resembled nothing so much as steam-rollers in their dealings with their fellow creatures, but the difference between them had lain in the fact that whereas Gregory Matthews had been subject to awe-inspiring rages, no one had ever seen Gertrude lose one jot of her implacable calm.
What a great description. There's a lot of bickering in this book, which I suppose is inevitable if you have to spend your entire life living in the same house with your extended family -- my whole family is spread out over the U.S. and Canada, and though I complain about it during holiday time, it definitely causes less friction when you see them maybe once or twice a year. But I digress.
Behold, Here's Poison reminded me once again how nice it is that I live in the 21st century. While it might be nice to have some rich uncle die and leave you a nice pile of cash (which I have fantasized about, no lie), it seems like many such characters are manipulative and vindictive, playing with the heirs like marionettes. Sadly, less than 100 years ago young ladies like Stella still didn't have education or training to go out and get a real job -- her choices were marry someone her uncle liked, or she'd be cut off with out a cent. (Or a shilling, or ha'penny, or whatever -- I have a terrible time with the old British money. Pence, quid, guineas, half-crowns, shillings, it's all so confusing. Any readers living in Britain, feel free to explain). At any rate, this was a fun book and a pleasant surprise. I'd be happy to read more of Heyer's mysteries and look forward to more reviews all month long on the Classics Circuit.