Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Death in the stocks

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 fiancĂ©e Violet, though she is a devoted reader of detective novels, is not amused by their game.  Neither is Tony's fiancĂ© 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.

11 comments:

  1. I have never read anything by her but notice quite a few people are drawn to her. Just so many books, so little time. I like your description of the 'ick' factor. We all need one of those from time to time.

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  2. Pam, it's ironic that blogging has added so many books to my TBR stacks - real & virtual - while it also takes away from my reading time! I don't think there are any Penguin editions of Georgette Heyer unfortunately :) but she is marvelous.

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  3. I read her crime before I discovered the Regency wonderfulness, and thought they weren't a patch on Agatha Christie in plotting. However, this was a long time ago, and I find that vintage crime grows on one slowly - one begins to appreciate other things too, rather than perfectly tied up ends. Setting, for instance. I should try again.

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  4. I've only read one of Heyer's mysteries (Envious Casca) but I enjoyed it and will definitely read more. I'll have to look out for this one as you think it's her best. I want to read some more of her historical novels first, though - there are still a lot that I haven't read yet!

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  5. vicki, I didn't even discover her crime novels til long after I had read most of her historicals. I don't think hers are anywhere near Christie or any of the real Golden Age writers, but they still have the Heyer touch - in dialogue & in familiar character types.

    Helen, I almost envy you having so many wonderful Heyers ahead of you, to read for the first time. But then she's like Dorothy Dunnett in the pleasure of re-reading.

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  6. I've only read one of her mysteries, which I quite liked (Behold, Here's Poison). However, I read about three of her Regency books in a row because I loved the first one so much. I keep meaning to get back to them but I just haven't made time! I think I need to read another one of her books, they're perfect for light summer reads. I think her sharp wit elevates them from the usual beach reads.

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  7. Karen, that's another favorite of mine, with Darling Snake Randall and his viperish tongue. I think Heyer is perfect reading all year round :)

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  8. I like the notion of Heyer being a palette cleanser. I know just what you mean--something redeeming to get the nasty images out of your head.

    I've only read one Heyer mystery (that wasn't historical) and it was okay but not as enjoyable for me as other "Golden Age" detective writers' stories.

    I loved your comment about the mark of a Heyer heroine. Made me smile!

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  9. Jane, I was only skimming the "ick" book, and I still wish I could un-read parts of it! Liking dogs is always a good sign with her characters - let alone breeding them - but I don't think she cared too much for cats.

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  10. I must must MUST read more Heyer! I've only read two of her novels, and I loved both of them, but she's just gotten crowded out. I need to get pneumonia or something, and settle in with about ten of her books.

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  11. Jenny, yes, you really should! I hope it doesn't have to wait on major illness though :) I can't remmeber if you've mentioned which two you've read.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!