(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1930’s, the mystery novel became increasingly respectable. Agatha Christie was already well known, and Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh were establishing themselves in the genre. Georgette Heyer joined this group of talented female writers with Footsteps in the Dark, which appeared the same year as Devil’s Cub (1932), one of her popular Regency romances.

Footsteps in the Dark

This experiment in what she called the thriller concerns a haunted house that later proves to be the headquarters for a gang of forgers who are trying to frighten the new owners into moving away. Although not without merit, Footsteps in the Dark served as an apprentice novel for Heyer. Her next two mysteries, Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) and The Unfinished Clue (1934), show that she had mastered the craft.

The Unfinished Clue

Both these novels are related to the country-house mystery, which was to become Heyer’s most successful and characteristic genre. Whether the setting is a small English village or an affluent suburb, the interest in a Heyer novel is generated by the characters and their witty dialogue. The Unfinished Clue contains a marvelous character, Lola de Silva, who is an exotic dancer and the highly unacceptable fiancée of Geoffrey Billington-Smith. Lola deplores the lack of absinthe for her cocktails and insists that a painting of a dead hare be removed from the dining room because it will make it impossible for her to eat. After carefully explaining to the detectives her motives and opportunities for killing Geoffrey’s father, she acknowledges: “I did not stab the General, because I did not think of it, and besides, in England I find it does not make one popular to kill people.”

Death in the Stocks

Death in the Stocks (1935) introduced the twodetectives Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway, who were to figure in a number of Heyer’s mysteries. Death in the Stocks was reviewed by both The Times of London and The Times Literary Supplement, and it was also dramatized, although unsuccessfully. The adaptation must have been inept, for the dialogue in Death in the Stocks is especially successful. Giles Carrington, the Verekers’ cousin and solicitor, solves the murder and also wins the hand of Antonia Vereker, his distant cousin and the murder victim’s half sister. Violet Williams, a beautiful but empty-headed gold digger, is engaged to Kenneth Vereker, the victim’s half brother and heir. Antonia accuses Violet of not caring if something is good to look at “as long as it reeks of money.” In the well-bred world of the Verekers, Violet’s lack of taste is emblematic of her mercenary values.

When Kenneth Vereker is cleared of having committed the murder, Hannasyde says that they will have to release him:“Let him go?” said Hemingway. “You’ll have a job to make him go. The last I saw of him he was asking what they’d charge for board-residence till he’s finished a set of the most shocking pictures you ever laid eyes on. Portraits of the Police, he calls them. Libels, I call them.”

The murderer proves to be Violet, whom Kenneth’s relatives and the reader are relieved to have removed from the picture, and marriages supply the final denouement.

No Wind of Blame

Heyer described her novels as a collaborative enterprise with her husband. He devised the plots in terms of figures identified very abstractly as A, B, and C. She then supplied the characterizations:I do these things with the assistance—and ONLY the assistance of G. R. Rougier. . . . [He] still dines out on his version of what happened over No Wind of Blame, which was a highly technical shooting mystery. . . . I DID know, broadly speaking, how the murder was committed, but I didn’t clutter up my mind with the incomprehensible details. Ronald swears that he came home one evening when I was...

(The entire section is 1661 words.)