Posted: November 12, 2014 in Agatha Christie, Book Awards, England, Golden Age of detective fiction, review

death in the stocksThe front cover of Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument, a mystery novel published three years after Death in the Stocks, trumpets this recommendation from the San Francisco Chronicle :

“Ranks alongside such whodunnit authors as Christie, Marsh, Tey and Allingham”.

Reading this high praise, and also because Death in the Stocks was on a list of ten of the best Golden Age Crime novels at Crime Fiction Lover was more than enough reason to read this novel. 

My recent reading has raised certain questions in my mind.

Was the Golden Age a high point in crime fiction writing? Were most of the novels merely pure escapism from the harsh realities of the depression, and the difficult political situation during the interwar years, or did they have merit as social commentary about those times? And was Dame Agatha Christie by far the best author from that period, maybe not in literary style, but in the creation of clever plots and memorable characters? 

Georgette Heyer is more famous as a writer of historical romance novels set in Regency England, but between 1932 and 1953 she also wrote twelve detective books.

 P1010773Death in the Stocks published in 1935 has many of the classic features of Golden Age detective fiction, a wealthy hated murder victim, a lengthy cast of suspects, a dysfunctional family, a country cottage, faithful servants, and an affable detective. 

Arnold Vereker [the back cover and Crime Fiction Lover refer to Andrew Vereker but this is an error] a very rich man whose hobbies are social climbing and young women is found by Police Constable Dickenson stabbed to death, and put in the stocks at Ashleigh Green. 

‘Don’t seem to know his face.’

‘Well, I daresay you might not, sir. It’s Mr Vereker, of Riverside Cottage.’

‘Oh!’ said the Inspector with a little sniff. ‘One of those week-end people.’

So even back in 1935 wealthy townies bought property in villages, which then remained vacant throughout the week destroying the community, and also increasing house prices beyond the means of the locals. Clearly Ms Heyer foresaw the future of English village life.

When Riverside Cottage is searched Arnold’s half sister Antonia, known as Tony, is found to have spent the night there. She had quarrelled with Arnold, her P1030714guardian, over her engagement to company accountant Rudolph Mesurier. Arnold naturally objected to Rudolph borrowing company money, or as it is known among those without cut glass accents, embezzlement. She had come down to Ashleigh Green to have it out with Arnold. Antonia’s brother the supercilious Kenneth, an artist, is engaged to the beautiful Violet Williams, but also has the ordinary looking Leslie Rivers pursuing him. The faithful female servant is called Murgatroyd [first names for the lower classes were only discovered in England around 1963, along with The Beatles, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice -Davies and Sex] while a cousin Giles Carrington is conveniently a lawyer and executor of Arnold’s will. 

Tony [Antonia] and her brother Kenneth talk to the detectives Superintendent Hannasyde and his assistant Sergeant Hemingway as if they are under footmen, but from my experience that is how the upper and upper middle classes reacted to workers in the 1950s so I am sure it was considerably worse in 1935. I read somewhere that Ms Heyer is able to reproduce accurately the “brittle and ironic conversation of the upper middle class Englishwoman”.

‘You do understand, don’t you darling?’

‘Yes, absolutely,’ replied Antonia. ‘You cooked the accounts and Arnold found out. I’ve often wondered how that’s done, by the way.

How do you do it, Rudolph?’ 

The dialogue in Death in the Stocks, so evocative of the time,  unfortunately to a modern ear makes the characters appear to be just spoilt brats so that one does not really care about them. When a supposedly dead relative arrives from South America to claim his inheritance the whole thing becomes a bit of a frivolous farce. When Death in the Stocks was produced as a play, concentrating on the comedic aspects of the book, in New York in 1937, it ran for 3 nights.

On the evidence of Death in the Stocks Georgette Heyer’s mystery novels are not in the same class as Christie, Marsh, Tey and Allingham, because the characters are stereotypes and the plot lacks complexity. But most of all because the detective Superintendent Hannasyde is not the dominant figure  that a Poirot would be.

‘I’m terribly sorry, Rudolph, but-but Giles wants me to marry him.

And he knows me awfully well, and we get on together, so-so I think I’d better, if you don’t mind very much.’     

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Norman. I think Heyer’s writing has a certain wit; and, as you say, she had an ear for certain ways of speaking (and therefore dialogue). But no, I wouldn’t put her in the same class as Christie, Sayers, Tey, etc…

  2. Nice review Norman – I read this one years ago, and have been slowly re-reading Heyer’s detective books, so will get to this one… I agree with your criticisms, and she certainly wasn’t in the same class as Sayers or Christie or Allingham, but still they make for an entertaining read.

  3. tracybham says:

    I have plans to read the Heyer mystery novels, but I agree (just based on my memories from reading them years ago) that they are not in the league of some other vintage mystery writers. Maybe she might fare as well as Marsh for me, but definitely not Christie, Tey, or Allingham. And in some cases it could depend on which novels you are comparing (not that I could be specific).

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