As the cover image of a gentleman lighting a lady’s cigarette suggests, this classic mystery story, first published in 1932, dates from the Golden Age of detective fiction, when vicar’s wives arrived by bicycle, motoring holidays are a thing and cars a rarity, and village bobbies summoned assistance by blowing their police whistle, when not investigating whether locals have a valid wireless licence.
Classic Crime from the Golden Age
To the modern reader it may seem formulaic – middle class wealthy siblings spend the summer in a historic, tumbledown priory they’ve just inherited (as you do), accompanied by aged aunt for variety. Surrounded by a standard cast of supporting characters – garrulous publican, drunken melodramatic French artist, terrified housemaid, stubborn butler and wife (they have staff, of course), and gentrified neighbours – the discover the house is haunted by a ghostly monk, and then to compound their anxiety, there’s a murder.
Impact of the Inter-war Age
Their day starts with breakfast served on hotplates on the sideboard and finishes with a nightcap of whisky and soda brought on a tray, in those glorious days before the government sought to curtail our units of alcohol consumed each day, and cigarettes are considered as essential as oxygen. Service revolvers abound, as do memories of The Great War – and it’s that mention of the Great War that make the modern reader realise why such tales were so popular while the horrors of that dreadful conflict were still fresh in the collective mind. Interesting that spiritualism – more popular than the Church of England for a while post-conflict, apparently – is added to the mix, Blithe Spirit style. You could imagine the cast of Blithe Spirit being near neighbours to the Fortescue family in this tale. (Of course they’re called Fortescue, just as the aunt is Bosanquet – no common names for this lot.)
Like Hearing a Vintage Radio Drama
Interestingly, while reading the book I felt as much as if I was watching a play like Blithe Spirit or listening to a radio play, because there’s very little description – the sense of Englishness comes from the copious dialogue and functional scene-setting rather than more detailed passages – and plenty of banter that would make this book transfer very smoothly into a dramatisation. The characterisation is straightforward, without the subtleties or sensitivities of an Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, although I was interested to see Sayers quoted in Amazon’s blurb for the novel as follows:
“Heyer’s characters and dialogue are an abiding delight to me … I have seldom met people to whom I have taken so violent a fancy from the word “Go””.
I think it’s the elegant, witty banter that is the winning element rather than the depth of the characters – and they’re all pretty likeable too, even the baddies.
The plot’s pretty transparent too. I was at least one jump ahead of all the twists, without even trying to solve the mystery myself. But it’s an enjoyable, nostalgic read of a bygone age (and one of my favourite eras for lots of reasons).
My First Encounter with Georgette Heyer
I confess this is the first Georgette Heyer novel I’ve ever read, having been under the delusion for years that she wrote only Regency romance, which doesn’t usually interest me, but I’m glad to have discovered her mystery novels, to which I will return when in the mood for a jolly, undemanding caper to pass the time.
One to Read in Paperback
Heyer’s mystery novels are still in print, and reissued with evocative period covers like the one above. I don’t know what the demand is like for them these days, and whether they’re stocked in bookshops, but I read it as an ebook from Amazon here. I suspect Georgette Heyer will now be added to my list of names to look out for on the spines of books in charity shops, because, dedicated ebook reader as I am, reading this period novel on a Kindle felt all wrong somehow. The older the paperback I can find, the better.
If you enjoy classic mysteries, you might like to investigate my contemporary Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series.