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.