by Georgette Heyer
Experience Georgette Heyer's sparkling dialogue in one of her most popular mysteries.
It's no ordinary morning at the Poplars - the master is found dead in his bed and it turns out that his high blood pressure was not the cause of death. Heyer uses her attention to detail and brilliant characterizations to concoct a baffling crime for which every single member of the quarrelsome family has a motive, and none, of course, has an alibi. Heyer's sparkling dialogue is a master class in British wit, sarcasm and the intricacies of life above and below stairs.
I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read, though it didn't start off so promising... The characters initially seem so horrible and unlikeable that it's clear Heyer doesn't even want us to like them-- yet. Gradually, they grow on you. (Or, well, at least they grew on me, and I've seen other reviewers make similar observations.) By the end of the book, I actually liked most of them, to varying degrees-- particularly Randall. (What can I say? It's what Heyer wanted, obviously. Why not be obliging?)
Is it Great Literature? No. The mystery isn't unfathomable. It's not difficult to guess certain plot points-- especially if you're really trying. But if you can look past that, and if you're willing to like the characters (faults and all), it's not a bad book. It's actually just they type of book that I like most, right now. Something well-written enough that it doesn't irritate me with incompetence-- engaging enough to serve as an escape route from reality-- not at all pretentious, being more concerned with telling a story than proving anything to anyone-- and just generally entertaining.
Random Tidbits (Including SPOILERS):
-- The story opens from the perspective of a servant girl, who refers (in thought) to the "girls" (servants) at the neighboring house as "a lazy lot of sluts". That old-fashioned usage of the word (to mean "slovenly") is always a bit startling. It just comes out of nowhere-- and you can't help but at first think of what it means today. Of course, language is a living thing, changing day by day. It makes you wonder what words we write today that will make future readers take a startled pause before reminding themselves that, oh, that's right, they used to use that word to mean that.
-- The young males start out a bit oddly (imho). Guy is an avant-garde interior designer. Which, ok... Not unheard-of. But then there's Randall, who is seemingly obsessed with clothes and offers his female cousins fashion advice-- and worse still, criticizes their perceived fashion faux pas. Not a promising candidate for a romantic lead (assuming the romance is to involve a woman, I mean)...
-- Joss-sticks. Evidently they're those incense sticks. Never heard that term before, but then again, I never use incense. I'm more of a wax cube and scented candle girl, myself.
-- "'They tell me you always look for nicotine in the mouth. Liver and kidneys too. It's a mystery to me why anyone wants to be a doctor.'" Ha! I so totally agree! Not the life for me. No idea if I'd have had the skill, but I certainly lack the inclination.
-- Which brings me to nicotine used as poison. I wonder if this was more of a "thing" in the first half of the twentieth century, because I've come across it in an Agatha Christie mystery, too, but don't remember hearing of/seeing it anywhere else...
-- Someone refers to Harriett as a "regular cough-drop". Obviously this is not a compliment. I wonder if it meant the same thing as saying that someone was "a pill"?
-- How amusing that the word "recondite" means "little known; obscure" when the word itself feels fairly obscure.
-- "'I won't be treated as a cypher in my own house!'" Yes, I had to look that one up, too. (Sure, the context makes it fairly clear, but I was curious.)
-- Apparently "seccotine" is a type of glue. I was sure it would turn out to be another word for "antibiotic cream"... but come to think of it, maybe this was set before the invention of antibiotic cream... (g) Oh well. We can't guess 'em all.
-- One of the few times I felt truly annoyed during this book was when it became clear that Henry Lupton is cheating on his wife (Gertrude) and has been doing so for many years-- living a double life, in fact. Gertrude may not be a very nice person to live with, but it absolutely sickens me (maybe because I suspect that I'm not always the easiest to live with, either) that we're apparently supposed to accept Henry's pathetic, repeated excuse that his wife "doesn't suffer through it". So Henry doesn't want to hurt his daughters and grandchild-- or Gertrude-- by breaking up the family with a divorce... Well, are those his only options? Either keep his mistress set up in Town, and visit her whenever possible, keeping his family in the dark-- or subject his family to the pain of divorce? Um, no, Henry. You had a third option-- that being, exercise a little self-control and live with the consequences of your decision to marry Gertrude. You could have decided to make the most of your life after a possibly poor choice of wife. Stand up to Gertrude, if she's bullying you. Are you a man or a mouse, etc., etc.? (Maybe she'd respect you more if you exhibited the existence of a backbone.) Tell her you're not happy. Otherwise, you need to get a divorce. How dare you act like some poor put-upon fellow who's simply making the best of a bad situation? How dare you say that your years-long affair doesn't hurt anyone?! ARGH! (I find this attitude completely infuriating, in case you couldn't tell.)
-- Taking the car to have it "decarbonised". What in the...? Is that something people only had to do in the past? Is that what the "Techron" stuff they put in gas is supposed to automatically do? As you can see, I'm an expert on anything with an engine.
-- By at latest the halfway point, I was very suspicious of the kindly neighbor-- and after that, it just felt like a given that he'd be the guilty party. I had no idea why he did it, though. I don't think it was possible to "figure out" his complete motive based on clues, unless you just made the correct wild guess.
-- So, a "busy" is a policeman? Weird. What, like "busybody"? I can't think what else it could have come from...
-- The use of the word "dope" to mean medicine is also funny. "Have you given her some dope?"
-- The concept of a "medicine glass" is new to me. We always used spoons-- or possibly little plastic cups or phials that came with the medicine.
-- Funny how no-one in the house seems concerned for their own personal safety after two people-- family members, no less-- have been poisoned under that very roof. I think it would at least cross my mind that I might wish to be elsewhere, or at least take extra care about what I put in my mouth (food, medicine) until the murderer was identified.
-- Of course, as soon as I made that note, the butler and the cook hand in notices of resignation because they are feeling "Unsettled". (g)
-- Yes, the little joke in the assumed name "Hyde" definitely occurred to me, too. And I'd already guessed who Hyde was (as well as the identity of his "brother"), long before it was "revealed". I hardly feel like bragging about it, though, as I suspect it was obvious to many readers, early on.
-- I know some readers don't like romance mixed in with their mysteries-- and in some cases I might agree-- but this time, I found it one of the better parts of the book. Maybe I ought to try one of Heyer's romances. They are her chief claim to fame, after all.
-- I must take issue with the final statement in the publisher's blurb. That bit about "the intricacies of life above and below stairs"? Um, no. There is precious, precious little about "below stairs". (It wasn't really necessary to the story, so that's not a criticism.) Why did the blurb-writer feel the need to indicate something that's just not true?