Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

Behold, here's mystery and mayhem!  Well, not so much mayhem, they're British.  But still, quite witty and fun. 

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.

13 comments:

  1. I've not tried any of her mysteries yet. Glad it didn't disappoint. I'll probably do this one first then.

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  2. I do love Heyer but have never tried any of her mysteries (not being a particular fan of the genre). Perhaps it's time to overcome my prejudice - I do love her trademark, snarky dialogue and would hate to think that I'm missing out.

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  3. I have to say that cover picture is way more attractive to me than the romance covers. I'm reading one of the romance/historical fictions and it's okay.

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  4. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I read one of her Regency romances and did not really enjoy it, even though I am a huge romance fan. Go figure. I will definitely have to try out her mysteries though!

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  5. Lula O- I've heard the rest of the mysteries are pretty fun.

    Captive Reader - There's a little romance in this one, but I won't say anything else because I don't want to give it away.

    Rebecca -- this isn't actually the cover from the edition I read, but I found it on Goodreads and I really liked it. I think it sort of captures that era.

    Michelle -- I know Heyer's famous for her romances, but I'm really into mysteries at the moment. I'm not a big romance reader but I may give one of her romances a try later on. I'm looking forward to all the reviews.

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  6. I'm an Agatha Christie fan as well and selected one of Heyer's mysteries for my post next week. Between the two novelists, one might think that all wealthy families in England in the earlier part of the century were quite dysfunctional (and maybe they were??)

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  7. Suzanne -- I laughed out loud when I read your comment. My theory is that rich people have lots of time to be dysfunctional, since they don't have to work for a living. Or maybe it's just more fun for mystery authors to write about rich people than regular people. I guess middle-class people like myself are less likely to be in the country for a house-party than the rich society folks. I do love reading about them though.

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  8. This one is next on my Heyer hit parade--and I'm glad to hear it was fun, frothy, and didn't disappoint. The quote you used is what I like best about Heyer--in addition to witty repartee, I love her skewering descriptions.

    >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.

    No kidding!

    V enjoyable review--thanks.

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  9. It really seems that since Heyer wrote for different genres, one would have to read at least three of her books to get a good feel for her. I'm just starting on one of her historical fiction for the circuit and eventually should try one of her romances and one of her mysteries!

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  10. I recently read this one, too! I enjoyed it, but I agree- it's very hard to like the characters in Heyer's mysteries, though her romances are full of really great characters.

    If you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend Footsteps in the Dark. It's a mystery, but hilarious and gives you more of a hint of Heyer's wit and humor :-)

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  11. I've only read one Heyer, and I just thought it was okay. I guess I should try a few more?

    And hey! Your number just came up as the winner of my Wives of Henry Oades giveaway! But I need an email address from you so we can talk and get a mailing address, etc. etc. You can find my address on my blogger profile, so hopefully I'll hear from you soon! :)

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  12. What a great review! Though I wasn't terribly impressed with the Heyer mystery I read (review posted tomorrow), I'd like to try some more and it's good to see what others write about her books.

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  13. JaneGS -- fun, frothy, doesn't disappoint. That's a Heyer mystery in a nutshell. Well put. And I must remember to use "witty repartee" soon, either in a blog or in conversation.

    Valerie -- I think you're right, I should read one of her romances too. There was an excellent review today of The Grand Sophy, which sounds really fun.

    Aarti -- I have added Footsteps to my to-read list, it sounds fun and frothy.

    Suey -- thanks! I'm emailing you separately. Did you sign up for the Heyer tour? Which Heyer have you read, and was it a romance or a mystery?

    Phyllis - thanks! Why Shoot a Butler was my other choice, so I look forward to reading your review tomorrow. I'm sure it will end up on my to-read list also.

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