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August 21, 2010

Celebrating Georgette Heyer: No Wind of Blame and The Grand Sophy

If anyone wishes to know how to shoot a man crossing a narrow bridge, without being near the rifle from which the shot is fired, the answer lies in these pages. Murder on these lines is by no means everybody's game...
-- from the book jacket for No Wind of Blame (1979 edition)

Since I was dipping into Georgette Heyer as part of a group read of her Regency romances, I thought it would be fun to also read one of her 'thrillers' (she wrote about twelve of them). I remember one of them, Footsteps in the Dark, a number of years ago, and I also remembered her recurring Scotland Yard detectives, the cheerful Inspector Hemingway and his chief, Superintendent Hannasyde. And I always find something appealing, in a Masterpiece Theater kind of way, about reading vintage mysteries.

This one centers around the family living at Palings, in an English village, and their friends and neighbors. We meet wealthy, once-beautiful Ermyntrude Fanshawe, who is (of course) introduced to us wearing rouge and a negligee; Mary Cliffe, who is (of course) a sensible young woman in her early twenties; Wally Carter, Mary's uncle and former guardian, who is (of course) a ne'er-do-well now married to, and sponging off, Ermyntrude; and Vicky, Ermyntrude's daughter, who is something of an actress. They are eating breakfast and awaiting the arrival of Prince Varashvilli, a dashing, penniless but nonetheless royal guest.

Nothing happens, murder-wise, until you're a third of the way in, so a lot of  the book is taken up with setting up the suspects. Now that I've read two of Heyer's regency romances, I can see some of the same period slang (well, a different period), romantic entanglements and humor in this book:

'The mortuary!' Ermyntrude said in shuddering accents. 'Oh my God!''

It was plain that the situation was fast getting out of the Inspector's control. Mary saw that it was her duty to pull herself together, and to assist the course of justice. She turned to the couch.  'Dear Aunt Ermy, what does it matter what becomes of his body? Don't think about that! The Inspector wants to ask you some questions.'

Ermyntrude found that her recumbent position made it impossible for her to fling wide her arms without hitting the sofa-back, so she sat up. 'Have you no mercy? she demanded of the horrified Inspector.
The biography that I read said that GH's husband, a lawyer, crafted the plots of at least some of her thrillers, turning the outlines over to Heyer so she could add characters and settings. The unraveling of how the murder was committed was well done, and it follows the time-honored rule of giving us hints as to who the murderer is, if not giving us all the information we'd need to piece things together. 

Before I read this book, I finished a second Regency romance, The Grand Sophy.  This one is a little slower, and not as silly; when Sophy is sent to stay for the season in Berkeley Square with her overwhelmed aunt and her cousins, the story moves forward on her improper behavior, her clothes, her monkey, her high phaeton, and the interplay between Sophy and ‘that Friday-faced creature,’ Miss Wraxton. {Hah! I just read something about Friday the 13th and Fridays being traditionally considered unlucky, so I think I get this one.}

There’s still a good dusting of Regency slang and references:

She lifted her chin. ‘I should not under any circumstances spend the entire evening in any gentleman’s pocket!’

‘No, I believe you would not,’ he agreed mildly. Not in my line, Cilly? Besides, I am engaged with a party of my own.’

His employment of her almost forgotten nursery-name made her retort with much less constraint: ‘Duffy Club!’

He grinned: ‘No: Cribb’s Parlour!’

‘How horrid you are! I suppose you are going to discuss the merits of a Bloomsbury Pet, or a Black Diamond, or — or —‘

‘A Mayfair Marvel,’ he supplied. ‘Nothing so interesting. I am going to blow a cloud with a few friends. And what do you know of Bloomsbury Pets, miss?’

She threw him a saucy look as she passed him on the way down the staircase. ‘Only what I have learnt from my brothers, Charles!’
I can see some of the ‘highbrow’ working its way into Heyer’s writing {we know she didn’t make this stuff up, yet we don’t share her knowledge}, and maybe a little of the disdain she felt for readers who looked on her books as flighty romances. I wonder if her readers of the time knew what she was talking about better than I do? Cigars? Some of the references can be gotten through context, but for me part of the charm of these books is that they are not explained.  There's also some elements of the times, both Sophy's and Heyer's - specifically, blatant anti-Semitism - that are very unpleasant. But other than that, this was a fun book to read, if not as much so as The Convenient Marriage.

All in all, I'm very glad that I had a chance to read a little of (and about) Georgette Heyer. I'm going to listen to Cotillion on CD while I'm driving around this week and next. I've made a list, and I can see myself looking on the library shelves (or in a small English village) for another of her Regency romances sometime, but I'm probably even more likely to look for another of her mysteries. Thank you to Laurel Ann at Austenprose and to all the other participants for this introduction!


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

That's it! I'm not waiting one second more to pick up a Georgette Heyer novel -- why have I not ever read one of her books? I'm ashamed of myself, thoroughly ashamed!

Jemima Ravenclaw said...

I love Georgette Heyer and Grand Sophy is my favourite book. I read it whenever I need cheering up as the humour and personalities in it are so quirky and loveable and yet imperfect that it always makes me feel better.

After 30 years of immersion in historical fiction and non fiction I am of the opinion that the "Mayfair Marvel, Bloomsbury Pet and Black Diamond" are ladies of notable beauty and easy virtue. High class 'perculiers' who are well known to the men of society and who may be obtained for the right circumstances and price. Could be wrong of course. 'Black diamond' in this case would be a racist remark but not politically incorrect at time of writing although unacceptable, like the anti-semantic references commonly found in books written during the pre and post war eras.

My favourite murder mystery is 'Why Shoot a Butler?' because of its likable characters and quirky hero who manages the police to his own ends to solve the mystery. There is a really fun dialogue towards the end between the hero and the police sergeant during a fast paced drive towards the end that always makes me laugh.

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