WHY SHOOT A BUTLER? (1933) by Georgette Heyer

This is my first excursion in to the upper crust world of Georgette Heyer, though she was hardly an obscure author and was very prolific. Making her publishing début while still in her teens, she went on to produce some sixty novels between 1921 and 1975. Best known for her Regency-set historical romances, she was also a popular mystery author in the 1930s and early 40s, in total producing a dozen books in the genre. I picked up Why Shoot a Butler? for its ironic title and because I thought it was about time I made her (literary) acquaintance. First published in 1933, it was her second mystery (though she had already published a dozen books in other genres by then), predating  the appearance of her recurring series characters, police detectives Hannasyde and Hemingway. Instead the protagonist is barrister Frank Amberley and the story begins on a foggy road.

I submit the following review as part of Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books meme and Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, specifically the ‘Golden Age Girls’ section where I have elected to review at least 8 mysteries by women authors published pre-1960.

“I don’t mind a spot of crime just to liven things up, but I bar homicidal maniacs. Three deaths all on top of each other! No, really, that’s coming in too strong!””

Having lost his way while out driving one evening on his way to dinner at his Aunt and Uncle’s country manor, Amberley sees a sports car parked in a lonely lane – and a woman standing next to it. He asks her for directions but is brusquely rebuffed – he then sees the body of a dead man inside the car. He has been shot in the chest and the woman is in possession of a pistol. Although her gun has not been fired, she is clearly hiding something and is surly and highly defensive – but Amberley is a blunt, arrogant and awkward sort of chap and since she wants him to leave he does so – after she gives him instructions on how to find the right road! He then stops off at the local police station to report the murder, omitting any mention of the woman. So, did the butler do it? Well in fact, it’s the butler that got done (sic).

“Dear me, how very unpleasant! Murders at our very gates! I do not know what the world is coming to.”

It transpires that the dead man was the butler of the Fountain family. Although apparently without a stain on his character, he salted away £2,000 in various bank accounts. How could he have saved so much money? The police are a dim and ineffectual lot and so utterly baffled in fact that they plead with Amberley to help them solve the murder. He cryptically states that the death of the butler will probably turn out to be the least salient aspect of the case, and instead focuses on Shirley Brown, the  young woman with the Colt automatic, and her drunken brother Mark, who promptly becomes the second to die in an apparent accident – this shortly after he attempted to shoot Collins, the Fountain’s remaining butler!

“Did anyone ever slap you really hard when you were a child?”

As the novel progresses at its sedate pace it becomes clear that the focus will be more on character than the plot, which is just as well as it is not overly complex and shouldn’t prove too taxing for most genre fans (though Heyer does in fact withhold a lot of information and doesn’t really play fair in some regards). The unlikely courtship of Frank Amberley and the headstrong Shirley Brown, full of misunderstandings and insults, is probably meant to be reminiscent of the Darcy and Bennet romance of Pride and Prejudice in its combination of mistrust, pride, arrogance and that Austen perennial – the love of the country and the sense that the city (in this case London) is the locus for assorted evil doings. Unfortunately the spikiness of the two lead characters gets a bit tiresome as we keep being reminded that she has a secret she won’t reveal, and he won’t give anything away of what is going on in his mind, unless it is to patronise the local constabulary (who are an unusually thick lot, it has to be said).

“You’re a beast,” she called; “but I rather like you, I think.”

Crime author and blogger Bill Lengeman over at Traditional Mysteries recently made it clear that he wasn’t too impressed with this book and on whole I have to say I agree. I found it slow and predictable and, despite some lively dialogue and a big chase at the climax, ultimately there is little I can really say to commend it. In fairness however I should point out that many others have a very different view of its merits. Bruce F. Murphy, author of The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery, is a critic I only occasionally agree with but whose intelligence and insight I greatly respect. He considers this book to be Heyer’s best mystery and there are many other extremely positive reviews of this book to be found scattered around the blogosphere.

There are some bright spots in this book, most notably those involving Amberley’s Aunt Marion who clearly is absolutely loving all the excitement and drama caused by the deaths. She is great fun and gets some nice scenes in the latter parts of the book; and there is also some amusing mystification over a valuable copy of the first volume of Disraeli’s ‘Curiosities of Literature’, even though its plot relevance is based on a coincidence so gigantic that it strains credulity to breaking point. But for this reader the book became increasingly a struggle to get though and after the halfway mark I was really quite anxious for it to end. A lot of the  remaining characters, like the sneaky valet Collins and the fairly idiotic fiancée Corkran, are pretty one-dimensional and made of the thinnest cardboard. Which wouldn’t have to be a problem if the plot were stronger or there was a stronger thematic undercurrent at work. Instead this is a perfectly straightforward mystery which indulges the ‘eccentricity’ of the landed gentry and can’t take the lower orders seriously at any level. The main exception is the wise and amusing Aunt Marion, a rather wonderful character who pretty much earns both of the Fedora tips I am awarding to this book, single-handed.

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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27 Responses to WHY SHOOT A BUTLER? (1933) by Georgette Heyer

  1. curtis evans says:

    Her books after this one mark a big improvement, I think. Of course how much one likes any given Heyer detective novel to a considerable extent depends how on much one enjoys acid repartee among house-bound members of the upper class confronting murder. My faovrites are A Blunt Instrument, No wind of Blame and Envious Casca, I think. Penhallow is more serious.

    • Cheers Curt – I will absolutely keep than in mind – I love Margery Allingham both in her frivolous and more serious moods so that is never much of an impediment for me. I did need to like the characters in this book a bit more though really.

  2. John says:

    I’ve only made it through A BLUNT INSTRUMENT because Barzun calls it her “masterpiece” in Catalog of Crime. But I figured it all out and thought it obvious. His second pick for her best is DEATH IN THE STOCKS. So I tried that one, but the Bright Young Things who were the two leads annoyed me — a little too arch and ironic like the characters from a Christianna Brand novel but just a tad nastier and some of them plain mean. I couldn’t finish it. I have a copy of PENHALLOW I found at an old book sale. The story has some Gothic elements to it that I liked – sort of an update of UNCLE SILAS in some respects.

    • Cheers John – I tend not to side too much with Barzun & Taylor (obviously more of a Symons man …) and from what you say I am definitely starting to get the feeling that la Heyer may not be for me – on the other hand, Uncle Silas sounds like a mode worth pursuing so I may try and track that one down – thanks very much for the sage words!

      • curtis evans says:

        Penhallow was her stab at a “great novel.” I don’t think it makes it, but it has interesting elements. It’s a “crime novel” as Symons would say, not a tec tale.

        All this reminds me that I’ve been meaning to blog about Heyer myself!

  3. curtis evans says:

    Heyer of course still enjoys a great following due to her Regency romances, which made up about 80% of her fictional output, I think. I can’t help but feel her characters are easier to tolerate within the Regency framework. In Death in the Stocks I rather wanted to throttle the outspoken brother-sister pair. On the other hand, I found the characters more likable (and very funny) in No Wind of Blame. Envious Casca has so many classic elements: locked room, house party, Christmas. In Blunt Instrument I liked the police characters quite a bit, the others, on rereading, less so. Interestingly, most of her tec books were plotted by her husband, an attorney and mystery fiction fiend.

    • Fascinating Curt – I hope the Barrister lead in Butler is not meant to be a protrait of him! Csca sounds like one to watch out for – I’ll definitely add it to the list. Thanks very much for all the advice – much appreciated.

  4. curtis evans says:

    Another thing: I recall when buying this book about fifteen years ago in Baton Rouge the store clerk suppressing a sneer at what I think struck him as a rather arch and snobbish title!

    • On the evidence of one heyer book read, this would appear to not be an unreasonable response – or at least, well in keeping with the way many of the characters are likely to behave in her fiction! I know my Mum and my Nan had plenty of her books on the shelves

  5. Colin says:

    I would term myself a fan of Golden Age mysteries but this book sounds like it has roped in all the least attractive aspects of that form.

    • To be fair, it does depend on your tolerance for some of the more conservative conventions of the genre, especially during the Golden Age. Others may feel quite differently. There is some funny dialogue and I do think Aunt Marion deserved a whole series devoted to her – and a lot of my criticisms could probably be leveled at a slew of mystery writers of the Golden Age. I’m a huge fan of John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room and the impossible crime sub-genre and think that his plots were dazzling, his prose often remarkably evocative and also, surprisingly funny. That is why I love his stuff but I also like the fact that, although he was basically fairly conservative in some respects (and left the country after the War he was so anti-Labour), he was enough of an individualist to eschew the obvious national and racial stereotypes that plague many of the writers of the time, like Christie and Sayers. And yet they are far more loved than Carr ever was and probably ever will be.

      From what Curt and John have said, I suspect that Heyer is not really for me but I will try some of the others just in case. But not soon – I’m definitely going to go and read some real thoroughbreds like Margery Allingham, Leigh Bracket and Christianna Brand first

      • Colin says:

        Carr is a great favourite of mine too – the locked rooms, the ingenuity of his plotting, the air of utter menace that pervades some of his best work, all offset by some marvellously comic moments or lines. I may not share his innate conservatism but I greatly respect his ability to avoid the casual racism that other writers fell prey to. Overall, I think he was a much better writer than Christie at his peak.

        Christianna Brand was worthwhile too; her plotting and characterization give herstuff a definite boost. Mind you though, I think I might prefer the writers from the other side of the pond in general during this period – I’m very fond of both Clayton Rawson and Hake Talbot.

        • I completely agree with you and I think we are very much on the same page here – I definitely prefer the Carr and Ellery Queen novels of the 30s and 40s to virtually any other author of the period. When I discovered Carr and Queen in the early 80s it was a wonderful, defining moment for me, led me to great writers like Rawson and eventually Talbot (I’ve only read Rim of the Pit of his, though his second novel is now also available) and all the great anthologies edited by Douglas Greene, Robert Adey and Jack Adrian, all of which seemed to emerge at around the same time. I’ve never been the same since!

          Have you seen the 1972 version of Anthony Shaffer’s play, Sleuth? There a really amusing tribute to Carr (and Gideom fell) in the opening section in which the Olivier character in effect pastiches one of Carr’s novels, The Problem of the Wire Cage, and does so with fondness and a real twinkle in the eye. I’d love to read the books that Shaffer wrote with his brother Peter but they are a bit hard to track down (at a sensible price anyway).

          • Colin says:

            Indeed, I ought to have mentioned Queen in there too. Talbot’s Hangman’s Handyman isn’t generally acknowledged to be as good as Rim of the Pit (well that’s pretty much a given anyway) but I still found it entertaining and absorbing.

            Good call on the opening of Sleuth. I first saw the movie long before I’d read or even heard about Carr – when I started reading JDC though I immediately remembered that scene.

            Have you read any Herbert Brean? He came along a little later but his stuff is pretty good; The Clock Strikes Thirteen is a cracking read. Banner Deadlines by Joseph Commings is another fine anthology.

          • I love the stories I’ve read by Joseph Commings and that anthology from Crippen & Landru is great (like most of their output) – have never read Brean though – I shall definitely seek that one out, thanks very much indeed for the tip.

  6. Hello, Sergio! I have never read Georgette Heyer though she’s been around far too long for me to have neglected her work all these years. I knew she wrote historical romances with a touch of humour but I didn’t know she wrote mysteries too. I have a couple of friends who swear by Heyer in much the same way that others swear by Christie, Wodehouse and Doyle. Is it likely that Heyer hasn’t got her due yet?

    • Thanks for the feedback Prashant – I must admit, I am not coninced that Heyer’s mystery fiction was her true forte sa I will have to try some of her historical novels instead and see what I think – now that really is a walk on the wild side for this reader!

  7. curtis evans says:

    Her Regencies still enjoy a huge following even today. If you start looking around you’ll see plenty of blogs talking about her. A new bio on her came out last year too.

  8. Bill says:

    So it wasn’t just me then. From reading the rest of the comments I’m thinking that maybe I’ll give Heyer another try but I’m probably not going to fall all over myself trying to get my hands on one.

    • Much as I hate to invoke the ‘spirit’ of Ghost, ditto mate! Having said that, Curt made some interesting suggestions and I’ll keep the titles he suggested to hand and see if my local library can help put. Clearly a capable enough writer though she does appear to have a penchant for rather hard-to-like characters by the sound of things – hmmm

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  12. Ela says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party – I like Heyer’s mysteries, but not for the plots! She did much better when left to herself – for example, the smugglers and their activities in her historical novels ‘The Talisman Ring’ and ‘The Unknown Ajax’ work much better than her villains in contemporary mysteries. That said, I like ‘Envious Casca’ very much, and ‘Behold, Here’s Poison’, but she doesn’t always play fair with the reader, and ‘Why Shoot a Butler?’ is definitely one of the worst offenders in that respect.

    Nice review!

    • Thanks for all the extra info Ela, much appreciated as my knowledge of Heyer’s output, in or outside of the mystery genre, is pretty much based on what my Mum and grandma told me – cheers!

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