Friday, September 11, 2015

Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

Can I just mention that the cover's terrific?
Everyone loves a good vintage detective story, obviously. I had never read any of Georgette Heyer's detective novels, and so when I had the opportunity to pick one up for free, I jumped at the chance.

(An aside: For the last few years, a shelf of free ex-library books has been provided at the train station in our local town. Travellers are encouraged to nose through them and take something to read on their journey. Isn't that a neat idea? That was how I acquired this book, and honestly, I can think of few better things to do with ex-library books than giving them out to me for free).

So, Behold, Here's Poison (which comes with an endorsement from no less a luminary than Dorothy Sayers herself), opens in the approved manner, with the discovery of a dead body. Mr Gregory Matthews, the deceased, was known to have heart trouble, and none of the other members of his household--stingy spinster sister Miss Harriet Matthews, manipulative widowed sister-in-law Mrs Zoe Matthews, or Mrs Matthews' son and daughter, the feckless interior-designer Guy or perpetually exasperated only-sane-woman Stella--think for a moment that Mr Matthews might have departed this life with assistance.

But Mr Matthews's other sister, the formidable and acid-tongued Mrs Lupton, knowing the resentments and frustrations seething in the Matthews household, insists on an autopsy--and to everyone's amazement, the body tests positive for nicotine poisoning. Inspector Hannasyde arrives from Scotland Yard to investigate, and is plunged into all the nutty goings-on of the Matthews family--none of which is more infuriating than the smug and smooth-tongued heir Randall Matthews.

In some ways this book was a fun read. Heyer's wit and humour are in good evidence here. If you've only ever read Heyer's Regency romance novels, as I have, you might even find this book pretty surreal, as so many of the characters act like the characters in her Regency books. It can be difficult to remember that Heyer's writing contemporary fiction (Behold, Here's Poison was first published in 1936). When Randall sends a note to Inspector Hannasyde protesting against the colour of the boots worn by the plain-clothes detective following him around London, it's not just hilarious, it's also rather difficult to keep in mind that just this once, Heyer's not writing a Regency dandy.

In other ways, I'm not sure this was a particularly good detective story. I do appreciate Heyer focusing on psychology and character rather than painstakingly going over clues and alibis. However, the plot didn't seem particularly tightly woven. The interaction of the characters, who were fun to watch for a while but ultimately tiresomely unpleasant, and a few red-herrings took up the majority of the plot. At the end, it turns out that the motive for the murder was foreshadowed very well, but the actual murderer was someone so unexpected as to seem almost irrelevant to the rest of the story. Meanwhile, Stella, who acts as the point-of-view character for most of the book, has an oddly disjointed and underdeveloped romance subplot that manages to be both unexpected and rather Heyer-typical at the same time.

Finally, I didn't appreciate the fact that one of the most unpleasant characters in the book is also portrayed as a believer. It was not unsubtly done, and I'm sure people like this exist, but it's also the most overt reference to Christianity in those of Heyer's works that I've read and seems to fit in with a generally dismissive and cynical attitude I've noticed in her other works.

To conclude, this book was entertaining, witty, and an easy read. It was also somewhat cynical in tone with a weak ending and characters to whom, alas, I did not, with Dorothy Sayers, "take a violent fancy".

Find Behold, Here's Poison on Amazon or The Book Depository.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This was one of my least favorite Heyer mysteries for one of the reasons you mention: I got pretty tired of all the bickering and sniping among the characters. Envious Casca is similar, though that one does have quite a clever solution. But They Found Him Dead is my favorite, even though I did guess the culprit without too much difficulty, because in that one there's a number of likeable and extremely entertaining characters whose antics were great fun.

Anna Mussmann said...

I'll have to keep an eye out for the one that Elizabeth recommends in her comment. Behold, Here's Poison is actually my favorite of the Heyer mysteries I've read...because it's the first I read. The others felt like carbon copies.

Suzannah said...

Elisabeth, yes! THEY FOUND HIM DEAD sounds like good fun; I'll have to keep an eye out for it. I did think that BEHOLD HERE'S POISON was close to being my cup of tea--when I read a mystery story I don't want endless ultra-analytical "where were you on the night of Friday the 13th" interviews, but fun character interactions. If they'd been a mite more likeable, I would have appreciated those in BHP.

Anna, oh, that's sad--I hope I haven't ruined Heyer's better mysteries for myself by starting on one I don't like. That said, I do tend to appreciate the formulaic in some cases :D.

OK, I have to talk about the romance in this book, so SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING:

I actually quite liked Randall's character arc--or the way that Stella came to see him as more likeable. He was HILARIOUS as a Smug Snake who popped up and insulted everyone every few chapters. In some ways I even liked that I finished the book thinking it would be a miracle if he and Stella managed to stay together because he was a MUCH more realistic version of some of Heyer's more romantic heroes--that is, one finished with an appreciation of his good points, but one still wasn't sure if he was a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, or just a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk and enough charm to get the girl despite it. It was a really interesting situation and it would have been nice to see it take a bigger prominence in the story. As it was, with Stella breaking up with her first fiance offscreen with so little explanation that I automatically assumed she was either lying or trying to protect him or something, that whole plot seemed underdeveloped.


Ironic that one of Heyer's most intriguing romances should be one that she seems to have mishandled through not fleshing it out enough. Maybe that's why, of course--if she'd fleshed it out more it would have become a bit more cookie-cutter and less realistic.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Yes, I found most of Heyer's mysteries aggravating because they were filled with a lot of not so nice characters, & the small part the kind or funny character had didn't balance it out.

My favorites are "Why Shoot a Butler"; "They Found Him Dead"; "Duplicate Death" & "The Unfinished Clue".


Suzannah said...

Thanks for the recommendations!

Marty said...

Georgette Heyer's romance novels are much better than the mysteries. It saddens me so often in detective novels that the "Christian " character is unpleasant & unlikable. Georgette had help from her husband [ who was in the legal profession ] with the plots for her mysteries.

Suzannah said...

Marty, have you read many of GK Chesterton's mystery/detective stories? Father Brown, The Paradoxes of Mr Pond, The Poet and the Lunatics, Four Faultless Felons, The Club of Queer Trades, etc? His mysteries are VERY pro-Christian; you'll love them.

I've often enjoyed Heyer's romances, but I was hoping her mysteries would be good, too, since she had some real strengths as a writer and some real weaknesses as an author of romance :P.


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