Monday 13 April 2020

Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer

Not a bad yarn, but I found the snobbery and period attitudes far more interesting than the plot. The story takes place in an English village just after the war, and the victim is an unpopular social climber. The inhabitants are trying to continue prewar life by giving tennis parties and discussing whether certain people are “received”. Times have changed, and there’s a Pole in their midst.

“I believe he’s quite all right – I mean, his father is supposed to have had estates in Poland, and that sort of thing – one never knows with foreigners, does one? Actually, I met him at the Lindales’, but, of course, he isn’t generally received,” says Mrs Midgeholme, who dotes on her many Pekinese dogs.

Why do the Thornden residents give themselves such airs? The village “could boast of no green... but it contained, in addition to several houses built in more elegant ages, which any house-agent would have described as gentlemen’s residences, a good many half-timbered cottages of honest antiquity.” Besides the 16th century Old Place, there is a "rose-red gem in the High Street", a "solid Georgian mansion", the victim's "rather older but less important house", and an “old-world and extremely inconvenient cottage”. The village also has a “common” – waste ground with gravel pits, benches and gorse bushes.

The houses are detailed not just to indicate the cast’s place in the pecking-order, but to help the reader work out who could have done the murder. “Henry Haswell had bought The Cedars in a dilapidated condition from the last surviving member of a very old County family; and... it was ironic and faintly displeasing that he should have set it in order, and done away with all the hideous anachronisms (including a conservatory built to lead out of the drawing-room, and chocolate-painted lincrusta walton lining the hall and staircase.” Washable embossed Lincrusta wallpaper was some 50 years out of date, and out of place in a “lovely” house at least 150 years old. It is ironic that Mr Haswell has done the right thing with the interior because he is NOT a member of an old County family.

The victim is “not by any means a pukka sahib, as we used to say in the old days”, and he’s thought to be living in a house above his station. He has one servant, and an attendant niece, because he’s incapable of so much as making himself a cup of tea. He’s called “underbred” for trying to find out information indirectly: “He was the most inquisitive man – and quite unsnubbable!”

Other period features: one of the characters “lives off her nerves”, while a typist lays claims to being “high-strung”. The first is acceptable, the second an affectation. Another girl believes in “facing up to unpleasant things”, an attitude dismissed as “frightfully pi”. There’s a young couple who quote tags of poetry to each other. Sightseers announce their presence with “uncultured voices”.

A bath with a shower attachment is dismissed as “old-fashioned”, a housekeeper bangs a gong for dinner, the local inn has feather mattresses on the beds. The inn has not been updated since the 1910s. As well as horsehair chairs and a massive mahogany sideboard “supporting an aspidistra and a biscuit-tin commemorating the coronation of Edward VII”, there are “steel engravings” and “a tall vase full of pampas-grass”.

The two detectives, Hemingway and Harbottle, are not all that memorable, but they exchange some witty dialogue. This case has class, admits Hemingway. “It isn’t every day you get a murder amongst a lot of nice, respectable people living in a country village.” (I don't know where else you'd find a village.)

After the murder, the Peke-owning Mrs Midgeholme appears “resplendent in lilac foulard”, while the victim’s niece, not being one of those who believe that a wardrobe should contain at least one “Good Black Frock”, is in unbecoming slate grey.

“They didn’t feel it was their duty to be neighbourly to those ghastly people who evacuated themselves here from London during the blitz, and took Thornden House for the duration!”

“No, but that was different. They weren’t permanent residents, and they got things on the Black Market. You couldn’t expect the Ainstables to have anything to do with them!”

I’m afraid I skipped a lot of the working-out, and conversations with a tedious old rustic who haunts the common. But it's a good read, and funny for a lot of the wrong reasons.

More detection here, and links to the rest.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I felt exactly the same way about this one, and enjoyed it for those other reasons. Thanks for reminding me of it.