Death in the Stocks, Georgette Heyer
I gave up on a book Sunday when it hit too many of my personal "ick" factors - in this case, child murder, incest, and fratricide. I felt like I needed something to cleanse my reading palate afterwards, and Georgette Heyer was a perfect antidote. I've been meaning to read this book for a while, it's my favorite of her mysteries.
The story opens late one night in the small village of Ashleigh Green. When PC Dickenson returns from a bicycle patrol, he discovers a dead man sitting in the old stocks on the village green, stabbed in the back. The victim is Arnold Vereker, a rich industrialist from London who recently bought a cottage in the area. The police call there the next morning, where they find a young woman who says she is his half-sister Antonia (she insists on the half part). She has a bull terrier with her (always a sign of the Heyer heroine at least in the mysteries), and blood on her skirt. Antonia tells them that she came down to "have it out" with Arnold over a letter that he wrote her, but she refuses to discuss the letter or to answer further questions without a solicitor present, so the police have no choice but to take her to the station and wait.
Her solicitor Giles Carrington, "a tall loose-limbed man in the mid-thirties," with "a pleasant lazy voice," arrives later and convinces her to cooperate with the officers, who now include Superintendent Hannasyde from Scotland Yard (a familiar character from Heyer's other mysteries). Giles is able to fill the police in on Arnold Vereker, another client of his and his cousin as well. Tony and her brother Kenneth are the children of a second marriage, but treated as his cousins too. There was another brother from the first marriage, Roger, shipped off in disgrace many years ago, who is presumed to have died somewhere in South America, leaving Tony and Kenneth the heirs to their brother's estate. For Tony, that means a comfortable sum. Kenneth on the other hand inherits the Shan Hills Mine Company and its holdings, a legacy of £250,000.
It is Tony who brings the news of their half-brother's murder back to Kenneth, in the studio flat that they share in London with Murgatroyd, once their mother's maid and now their cook-general (more like their keeper). Kenneth is a painter who is convinced that his work will someday be worth more than all his brother's wealth, but he is very happy to inherit that wealth. From the moment Tony arrives, she and Kenneth begin to spin theories about the murder, trying to work out how it was done, building up and demolishing cases against themselves and any possible suspect they can identify. Kenneth has no alibi for the night of the murder - he claims he was walking about the city on his own for most of the night - and he happily argues for the position as chief suspect, since he had the best motive. His fiancée Violet, though she is a devoted reader of detective novels, is not amused by their game. Neither is Tony's fiancé Rudolph (the subject of Arnold's letter), and the police are taken aback by their frivolous attitude toward the murder and their casually repeated statements about how much they disliked their brother.
Kenneth and Tony come across as complete brats in this book - though Tony shows signs of reform in the end. I don't think I'd want to spend too much time in their company, but they are geat fun to read about, with their outrageous theories and their unconventional talk. There are hints very early on that both have chosen the wrong partner, though I'm not sure that Kenneth at least deserves any better.
Heyer's detective stories are generally darker than her historical novels, many of which include some type of mystery in the story, like my favorites The Quiet Gentleman and The Talisman Ring. I do think that her mysteries are a bit uneven in quality. I've read complaints about the plots being improbable, or too simple, but since I never manage to work out who-done-it, that has never bothered me. The best, like this one, have the crackling dialogue that she wrote so well, and the laugh-out-loud moments, which always draw me back to her books again.