Sunday, February 9, 2014

Georgette Heyer and the Cozy Mystery

I’ve been trying to clear out some of my overstuffed attic, which means going through bags and boxes of books. I’ve had hundreds of books pushed back in there, stowed when I had to move out bunches of them for a renovation of our home.
A set of books I found while going through all those books was a group of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries. I’ve only re-read two of them so far, Behold, Here’s Poison and Penhallow. And already I’ve been staggered by how incredible Heyer’s writing is.
Neither book is a traditional detective story, but both are bang-up mysteries. In Penhallow, the murder doesn’t occur until two-thirds of the way into the story, and we know who did it. We don’t know why or what the repercussions will be. In Behold, Here’s Poison, the book opens with the discovery of the corpse and proceeds like a detective story, until we realize that a character who appears to be the chief suspect may be something more than he seems and the police detective in charge of the case (who has appeared in other stories by her) may in fact be outclassed.

The plotting is interesting, though complex puzzles aren’t really Heyer’s style.  Both stories are centered around the murder of a family patriarch who also happens to be a nasty, reprehensible character, unloved and unmourned by the extended family he tyrannized. And each story pulls out its share of twists and surprises.

But what really sets her stories apart are the characters. Oh, my goodness, the characters. Both of the books I’ve read feature large casts, and in the first chapter or two it can be confusing to keep up with them. By several chapters in, though, she’s delineated those characters so well that you know exactly who each is.

Although it’s a given in detective stories that at least one of the players in the story secretly has murderous depths, Heyer masterfully shows that nearly all of her characters are more than they seem while maintaining an aura of mystery about them. 

One of the more important suspects in the murder in Behold, Here’s Poison is the widowed Mrs. Matthews, sister-in-law to the victim. In speaking about his will, she says:
“It is not that one wants anything,” she told them, “but one misses the thought for others. Consideration for people’s feelings means so much in this dark world, as I hope both of you remember always. I had no claim on Gregory, though since I was his brother’s wife I daresay a lot of people would disagree with me on that point. As far as actual money goes I expected nothing, but it would have been such a comfort if there had been some little sign to show that I was not quite forgotten.”

Mrs. Matthews is a spiritual person who attends church regularly, gives the appearance of being kind to everyone, and tries to be a peacemaker with her quarrelsome relatives.  She mostly says the right things, but occasionally lets slip some deeper feelings of resentment, even anger.  But is she a clear hypocrite or someone who struggles with her conscience in an effort to be a better person?  Or possibly even something deeper.  The character who is undoubtedly the sharpest knife in this cast (in more ways than one) calls her “clever Aunt Zoe” and maybe he’s right. We don't know and Heyer doesn't give a definitive answer.

It's part of what makes Heyer so riveting. She shows readers the surface of the characters and offers glimpses into what’s going on below the surface, but she doesn't offer any overt judgments on those characters.  In fact, even the murderers are themselves rather sympathetic, since she shows what drove those seemingly normal people to that extreme.

The most fascinating character in Behold, Here's Poison is at once the chief suspect and arguably the hero of the story. He's a haughty, arrogant, sharp-tongued man with a nasty tendency to disparage everyone. The person who likes him the best calls him an "amiable snake" and it's undoubtedly accurate. And yet, he's also intelligent, alluring and utterly fascinating.

We may not like all of her characters.  In fact in Penhallow, they’re pretty much all unlikeable. Yet we’re fascinated by them and even come to care for them as we learn what drives them. It's a heck of a trick to pull off!

Karen McCullough is a web designer by profession, and the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years. Her most recent release is the ebook version of A Gift for Murder, originally published in hardcover by Five Star/Cengage and mass market paperback by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries.

Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog





  1. Interesting post, Karen. I'm sure I've read Heyer's mysteries and enjoyed them as much as the famous Romances.

    And isn't it great to revisit all those books you've shoved away and forgotten?

  2. Thanks, Elisabeth! Heyer was an awesomely talented author. And, yes, I'm enjoying revisiting all those books I had stowed away. But it means the current TBR list is expanding too fast!

  3. I wish I could write a good mystery. I don't seem to have enough bodies and can't plant enough clues or red herrings. I'm kinda like Danny DeVito in THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN - "the guy in the hat killed the other guy in the hat"

    Think I may have to read one or two of these..

  4. Georgette Heyer is the best author ever, in my opinion. I love almost all her novels. So ironic and fun.