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Monday, 2 September 2013

Detectives of the Golden Age

Detectives of the Golden Age
Georgette Heyer (1902-1974)
By Carol Westron

Georgette Heyer was born in Wimbledon in 1902.  She was named after her father, George Heyer.  Her paternal grandparents had emigrated from Russia and after the start of the First World War in 1914, Heyer's father changed the pronunciation of their surname to sound less German.  Heyer spent part of her childhood in Paris but the family returned to England in 1914.

Heyer had two younger brothers, George Boris (known as Boris) who was four years her junior and Frank who was nine years younger than her.  It was to amuse Boris, who had a form of haemophilia and was often confined to bed, that Heyer wrote her first story, The Black Moth, when she was only seventeen. This story of a Georgian highwayman had many of the basic ingredients of Heyer's later Georgian novels. Her father suggested she prepared the story for publication and found her a publisher. The Black Moth was published in 1921 when Heyer was nineteen.  Although Heyer is famous as a writer of Regency Romances, many of her novels, especially in her early years as a writer, were written in the time before the Regency.  The Regency period was from 1811 to 1820, (when George III was declared insane and his son, later George IV, ruled as Regent.)  Many of Heyer's earlier novels should more accurately be described as Georgian.

Despite this early success, Heyer was obviously trying out different genres and her early novels ranged between Georgian romance, historical adventure and contemporary stories.  Between 1923 and 1930 she wrote four contemporary novels, all of which she later insisted were suppressed because they were not work in which she felt any pride.

In 1920 Heyer met George Ronald Rougier, who was studying to become a mining engineer.  Early in 1925 they became engaged.  Unfortunately Heyer's father died a month later.  He left no pension and, aged twenty-three, Heyer assumed responsibility for the financial upkeep of her two brothers, aged nineteen and fourteen.  Heyer and Rougier married in the summer of 1925 but in October 1925 he went as a mining engineer to Caucasus Mountains while Heyer stayed in England.

In 1926 the publication of Heyer's Georgian romance, These Old Shades, coincided with the General Strike.  The novel received no newspaper coverage, reviews or advertisements but still sold 190,000 copies. Heyer hated publicity and this convinced her that it was unnecessary.  Despite appeals from her publishers she refused to promote her books. This attitude was very clear when later in her successful writing career she had many imitators, some of whom could be described as plagiarists. However annoyed she was by these imitators, Heyer refused to take either legal or 'name and shame' action against them. 

Rougier was posted to Tanganyika and Heyer joined him there.  She even managed to write the Georgian adventure The Masqueraders (1928) while in Africa and without the benefit of most of her reference books.  In 1928 Heyer accompanied her husband to Macedonia.  Here she almost died after a botched anaesthetic during a dental procedure.  Heyer insisted that they returned to England before attempting to start a family and so Rougier gave up his engineering career and the couple returned to England.  Rougier attempted various money-making schemes but none of them were very successful and he decided to study Law and become a barrister; again Heyer found herself in the position of chief bread-winner of the family.

Heyer's only child, Richard, was born in 1932.  She described him as her 'most notable (indeed peerless) work.'  In the same year she wrote the first of her contemporary, mystery thrillers, Footsteps In the Dark and for many years published a mystery and an historical book every year.

In 1939 her husband was called to the Bar but, at the outset, he did not earn a lot and she wished to send her son to an expensive preparatory school. As well as writing novels, Heyer reviewed books for Heinemann, earning two guineas a review, and allowed her books to be released as serial stories in women's magazines.  This determination to provide for her family may explain Heyer's long battle with the tax authorities and her many evasions to avoid paying taxes.  She deeply resented paying so much tax and described it as 'the squandering of my money on
such fatuous things as Education and Making Life Easy and Luxurious for So-Called Workers.'

In 1959 Rougier became a Queen's Counsel.  However, soon after this Heyer's health began to fail. She died in 1974 of lung cancer.  Heyer had longed to write a great historical trilogy about the House of Lancaster, but other more immediately commercial books got in the way and the trilogy remained unwritten. Only the first volume, My Lord John was published posthumously in 1975.

Georgette Heyer will always be remembered primarily as the writer of historical romances and the creator of the sub-genre the Regency Romance.  Heyer was dismissive of her lighter works, once writing, 'I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense... But it's unquestionably good, escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.'  Most of Heyer's historical romances are indeed very light but many could also double as cosy crime. Some of the topics she covers include: murder and attempted murder; smuggling and highway robbery; blackmail and kidnap, spying in time of war, and violent
lunacy.  If you ignore the Georgian trappings, you are left with some lively crime stories.

However the twelve novels that assure Heyer's place as a Golden Age Mystery novelist are the contemporary mystery thrillers she wrote between 1932 and 1953. The first of these Footsteps In the Dark (1932) was written while Heyer was pregnant and she completed it, in her own words, with the assistance of 'One husband and two ribald brothers.'  It is a romp through the crime thriller genre, and bursting at the seams with clichés: underground passages; secret panels; skeletons; faceless ghostly monks; an elderly aunt determined to exorcise the ghost with a planchette; a mysterious stranger staying at the local pub; a comically inept village policeman and of course footsteps and strange noises in the night. 'Ahead of them, where the passage ended, something moved.  Charles flashed his torch upwards, and for a brief instant he and Peter caught the glimpse of a vague figure.  Then, as though it had melted into the wall, it was gone, and a wail as of a soul in torment seemed to fill the entire place.'  Later in her life, Heyer asked her publishers to refrain from reprinting Footsteps In the Dark, but it is back in print now.

Heyer's son once said that she wrote her mystery books as if they were crossword puzzles. She depended on her husband to provide the plots, then she fleshed them out with lively characters.  The books are always set in an upper-class setting and have a lot of the features of traditional, country house murder mysteries. Often they could be a contemporary comedy of manners, as in Death in the Stocks (1935), when Kenneth and Antonia Vereker are discussing the murder of their half-brother with Kenneth's conventional fiancée, Violet:
'”Kenneth, whatever you thought about poor Mr Vereker when he was alive, I do think you might at least pretend to be sorry now he's dead.”
“It's no use,” said Antonia, spearing olives out of a tall bottle. “You'd better take us as you find us, Violet. You'll never teach Kenneth not to say exactly what he happens to think.”
“Well, I don't think it's a good plan,” said Violet rather coldly.
“That's only because he said that green hat of yours looked like a hen in a fit.”'
Death in the Stocks was Heyer's third mystery novel and introduced her Scotland Yard detectives, Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant (later Chief Inspector) Hemingway. The first time the reader meets Hannasyde he is described as a man of obvious intelligence and integrity, 'a middle-aged man with hair slightly grizzled at the temples, and a square, good-humoured face in which a pair of rather deep-set eyes showed a lurking twinkle behind their gravity.'' However in this first outing of her professional detectives, Hannasyde and Hemingway do not solve the crime; that honour is accorded to Giles Carrington, a young solicitor.

Heyer does not make her police detectives foolish, although she sometimes makes her country village coppers less than bright. Hannasyde and Hemingway are both intelligent, professional men, with a good working relationship, and in the books, after the first adventure, it is the police who work out who committed the crime.

The majority of Heyer's mysteries are lively whodunnits, all of which have romance as well as crime. Only Penhallow (1942) breaks the mould, for the very good reason that Heyer intended it to. Heyer's mysteries had always been published by Hodder & Stoughton but, after a meeting with a representative of the publishing house where Heyer felt he had patronised her, Heyer wrote Penhallow, a grim and melancholy book that has been described as 'a murder story but not a mystery story.' This had the intended effect; Hodder & Stoughton rejected the book (as did Heyer's US publisher) and this ended her contract with the firm. Penhallow was later published by Heinemann. Interestingly, Heyer did not use her Scotland Yard series detectives in this book; possibly she didn't wish to burn all her boats.
In No Wind of Blame (1939) Hemingway has been made an Inspector and leads the investigation, although he is only called in two-thirds of the way through the book. The description of his arrival sums up his lively personality.

'On the afternoon of the following day a brisk and bright-eyed Inspector from the Criminal Investigation Department arrived in Fritton, accompanied by an earnest young Sergeant, and several less distinguished assistants.
Neither Inspector Cook nor Superintendent Small viewed with much pleasure the prospect of handing over their case to the Inspector from London, but Inspector Hemingway, when he arrived, disarmed hostility by a certain engaging breeziness of manner, which had long been the despair of his superiors.
“Nice goings on in the country!” said Inspector Hemingway... “Mind you, I don't say I'm not going to like the case. It looks to me a very high-class bit of work, what with rich wives and Russian princes, and I don't know what besides.”    

Apart from Heyer's series detectives, Heyer only once revisits  characters. This is in two of her best mysteries, They Found Him Dead (1937) and Duplicate Death (1951).  The books were set on either side of the Second World War and both featured Timothy Harte and his half-brother, James Kane.  Timothy was a schoolboy in They Found Him Dead but in Duplicate Death he has served as a commando in the War and is now a barrister. Heyer was fond of featuring solicitors and barristers in her novels. They are the heroes in Footsteps In the Dark, Death In the Stocks and Duplicate Death. Heyer's husband was a barrister, which gave her a lot of knowledge about this way of life. They Found him Dead was investigated by Superintendent Hannasyde, assisted by Sergeant Hemingway, but in Duplicate Death Hemingway is a Chief Inspector and leads the investigation. Hemingway is one of the most likeable of the Golden Age detectives and one of the most underrated.  Lively, intelligent and humorous, he is a very down-to-earth character with a wide range of hobbies, including the theatre and psychology.
'”Good evening!” Hemingway said cheerfully, his tone a welcome contrast to the accents of officialdom assumed by his subordinate. “I'm afraid you've been kept waiting a long time, and I'm sorry about that.”
“Good God!” said Mr Harte, staring at him between narrowed eyelids. “You're the Sergeant!”
It seemed from Inspector Pershore's alarming demeanour, that he only awaited a sign from the Chief Inspector to take Mr Harte instantly into custody; but Hemingway, regarding Mr Harte with interest and surprise, gave no such sign. “Well, I was once, but I've been promoted,” he replied. “Did you happen to know me when I was a Sergeant, sir?”
“Of course I did!” said Timothy, rising, and going towards him, with his hand held out. “You probably don't remember me, but don't you remember the Kane case?”
A blinding light flooded the Chief Inspector's brain. “Harte!” he exclaimed. “I said it rang a bell! Well, well, if it isn't Terrible-” He broke off, for once in his life confused.
“Terrible Timothy,” supplied Mr Harte. “I expect I was too.”

Heyer's detective novels were never as popular as her historical romances.  The romances usually sold in the region of 115,000 while the detective stories averaged 16,000. Nevertheless, Heyer's twelve detective stories are a significant contribution to Golden Age fiction. Although some are more serious than others, only Penhallow is really dark. Many are joyously funny, none more so than A Blunt Instrument (1938), where the unfortunate Sergeant Hemingway has to deal with a village constable of implacable religious views and an insubordinate outspokenness.
'”You would have me change my evidence,” said Glass, fixing him with an accusing glare, “but I tell you that a man that beareth false witness is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow!”
“No one wants you to bear false witness,” said the Sergeant irritably. “And as far as I'm concerned you're a sharp arrow already, and probably a maul as well, if a maul means what I think it does. I've had to tell you off once already about giving me lip, and I've had about enough of it. Wait a bit!” He stopped short in the middle of the pavement and pulled out his notebook, and hastily thumbed over the leaves. “You wait!” he said darkly. “I've got something here that I copied out specially. I knew it would come in useful. Yes, here we are! He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed.” He looked up to see how this counter-blast was being received, and added with profound satisfaction, “And that without remedy.”
Glass compressed his lips, but said after a moment's inward struggle: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. I will declare my iniquity, I will be sorry for my sin.”
“All right,” said the Sergeant, returning his notebook to his pocket. “We'll carry on from there.”
A heavy sigh broke from Glass. “Mine iniquities have gone over my head; as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me,” he said in a brooding tone.
“There's no need to take on about it,” said the Sergeant, mollified. “It's just got to be a bad habit with you, which you ought to break yourself of. I'm sorry if I told you off a bit roughly. Forget it!”
“Open rebuke,” said Glass with unabated gloom, “is better than secret love.”
The Sergeant fought for words. As he could think of none that were not profane, and felt morally certain that Glass would, without hesitation, condemn those with Biblical aphorisms, he controlled himself, and strode on
 in fulminating silence.'

  Despite claims that Heyer regarded her detective books as 'crossword puzzles', in A Blunt Instrument, one gets the impression that Heyer is enjoying herself.
The last word on Heyer must go to one of the greatest Golden Age writers of all, Dorothy L. Sayers: 'Heyer's characters and dialogue are an abiding delight to me ... I have seldom met people to whom I have taken so
violent a fancy from the word "Go"'

Review of ‘Duplicate Death’ by Georgette Heyer

'Well. I don't myself expect to be murdered when I sit down to a game of Bridge with a party of friends.'  So Detective Chief Inspector Hemingway remarks, soon after he is called to the scene of crime. However, as Agatha Christie showed us in Cards on the Table, Bridge and Blackmail are both very dangerous games. In Duplicate  Death Daniel Seaton-Carew discovers this the hard way; attending a Society Bridge party, he is summoned to take a phone call in his hostess' boudoir. Soon afterwards he is discovered strangled with a length of picture wire. 

Hemingway had known he was not going to find the case easy from the moment he'd heard there were forty-nine people in the house at the time (fifty-five counting servants.) Fortunately most of the potential suspects were playing Bridge and could alibi each other but there were still plenty of people unaccounted for who had good reason to wish the victim dead. Seaton-Carew was a man-about-town who maintained his luxurious lifestyle by blackmail, drug dealing and other criminal practises. Seaton-Carew used his blackmail techniques to foist his 'friend' Mrs Haddington and her beautiful daughter, Cynthia, upon society and it was in Mrs Haddington's house that he was killed.

One of the chief suspects is Beulah Birtley, Mrs Haddington's secretary, a young woman with a dark secret in her past, which Seaton-Carew and Mrs Haddington were exploiting to force Beulah to stay in a job she loathed. Beulah is clearly terrified that her blackmailers will reveal her secret to the young man she is in love with, Timothy Harte, whom Mrs Haddington has earmarked for her own daughter. Timothy had met Chief Inspector Hemingway some years earlier, when Timothy was a schoolboy and Hemingway was a Sergeant investigating two murders in Timothy's family. Timothy is now a barrister. While his schoolboy hero worship of Hemingway is a thing of the past, Timothy is glad the case is in the hands of a detective whose integrity and intelligence he can trust.

The story is divided between Beulah and Timothy's tempestuous love story and Hemingway's investigation of the crime, but of course, as is always the way in detective fiction, just as Hemingway thinks he has found his killer another victim dies in a remarkably similar manner.

Duplicate Death is one of Heyer's best mystery novels. Timothy and Beulah are an engaging couple but the most fascinating thing about this book is that in it Hemingway comes into his own. For the majority of the books featuring him, Hemingway is subordinate to Superintendent Hannasyde and, although he leads the investigation in No Wind of Blame, Scotland Yard is only called in two-thirds of the way through the book. It is only in Heyer's last two mysteries, Duplicate Death and Detection Unlimited that Chief Inspector Hemingway gets to show what he can do.

The essence of Hemingway's intelligent and perceptive character and his wide-ranging interests is illustrated in Duplicate Death when a suspect attempts to patronise him:
'”I don't know if you've read Jung?”
Inspector Grant's gaze shifted to the Chief Inspector's face. The Chief Inspector had two hobbies: one was the Drama; and the other, which he pursued to the awe, exasperation and amusement of his colleagues, was Psychology. He had listened amiably to Mr Butterwick's flow of words, but at this challenge he lost patience. “Yes and Wendt, Munsterburg, Freud and Rosanoff as well!” he replied tartly.'
Duplicate Death is well worth reading. It is an amusing study of the Upper Classes, desperately trying to maintain a lifestyle that has been damaged, almost demolished, by the Second World War; it has a perceptive and likeable detective and a fascinating double murder as well. 

Duplicate Death’ is published in paperback by Arrow
Also available on Kindle.

·      ISBN-13: 978-0099493754

 Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, published July 2013.

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