Hazel McHaffie

Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer. The name brings a warm glow to my day. In my teens and twenties I was a huge fan of her Regency novels and snapped them up whenever I saw them second-hand.

Some for one shilling each, as you can see. Others the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence! I owned and read all except one of them, I think, and marvelled that a girl of 15 could write something as good as The Black Moth, initially to amuse her convalescent brother, but later published in 1921.

By the time she died in her seventies, she was the acclaimed author of over fifty books, but in spite of being a huge fan of hers, I confess that till this week, I’d never read one of her twelve murder mysteries. Time to remedy that and relax my mind at the same time, then. I’m in sore need of undemanding recreation right now. Think shades of Upstairs Downstairs meets Agatha Christie. The book is Why Shoot a Butler?

And indeed it’s a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder Dawson, the trusted old butler of Norton Manor – a stately old fossil. Frightfully keen on the done thing, found with a bullet through his body on a remote road. Three murders and two burglaries keep the bumbling police totally confused while a scornful, enigmatic and imperious barrister, Frank Amberley, unravels a complicated and involved plot of much more significance then the murders themselves.

So why does Amberley keep quiet information about a female person found at the scene of the butler’s death? What is so important about a book borrowed from a dusty under-used library? What is the strange young woman at Ivy Cottage concealing, and why won’t she confide her secrets? Who is the sinister new butler who appears out of nowhere bearing unverified references? Who exactly is to be trusted?

This time around I’m much more aware of literary issues with Heyer’s writing, much as I thoroughly enjoyed the witty dialogue and element of suspense. But after all, this one was written in 1933 – language, publishing, social mores, well, pretty much everything really, was very different back then.

Nowadays most editors would pounce on a lot of nitpicky points, from frequently changing points of view within chapters, through to numerous typographical errors. Modern authors are taught to keep the choice of words pared down to avoid distraction: he ‘said’ – not he ‘expostulated’, ‘ejaculated’, ‘retorted’, ‘interposed’, ‘asseverated’. The prose should show emotion not spell it out – bin the adverbs – ‘tetchily’,  ‘grumpily’, ‘maliciously’, ‘tranquilly’. It would take a brave or foolhardy man to call a fiancee ‘dear old soul’, ‘old thing’, today, I rather think. So, a product of its day, then, but a diverting read for all that, despite all the anomalies and anachronisms. And in the character of Frank Amberley I was forcibly reminded of all the rude, supercilious, entitled cads in Heyer’s romances who rode roughshod over other people’s finer feelings but nevertheless won the heart and hand of the fair lady.

Thank you again, Georgette Heyer, you lifted my spirits and took me away from twenty-first century problems. Exactly what I needed. And now, of course, I’m wanting to read the other eleven mysteries.

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