Author Georgette Heyer is best known – or so I’m told by Wikipedia, which is never wrong – as the creator of the literary subgenre known as the “Regency romance,” historical novels set among the English upper class in the early 19th century (that is, the time of Jane Austen’s books) but written in the 20th century. I had no idea who Heyer was when my wife gave me one of her non-romance novels, the mystery Behold, Here’s Poison, for Christmas last year. I can see the connection to those Regency romances, which Wikipedia describes as featuring “intelligent, fast-paced dialog between the protagonists,” as this book was fast and witty, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it a detective novel and it fell a little short as a mystery. It’s more of a fun thriller built around a country-house murder.
Gregory Matthews is the head of household at the Poplars and holds all the keys, literal and metaphorical, to the lives of the family members around him. When he’s found poisoned (by nicotine) in his bed one morning, everyone in the house is revealed to have a motive – his sister, sisters-in-law, niece, two nephews, the family doctor, and so on – while no one has a clear alibi except the one man, the intelligent, sardonic Randall Matthews, who had the most to gain directly from Matthews’ death: nearly his entire liquid fortune. Superintendent Hannasyde and Inspector Hemingway, who appear together in three other Heyer novels, arrive on the scene to piece together the mystery of Matthews’ death, a story complicated by the eventual death of one of the many other suspects.
Randall is by far the most interesting character in the book, as he’s a few levels above everyone else in brainpower and isn’t afraid to show it, tweaking his relations (especially his nosy aunts) for his own enjoyment. His arrival after the elder Matthews’ murder leaves no doubt about his role in the rest of the book – he’s there for dry wit, as when he first appears, entering a room filled with his relations after they’ve all learned of Gregory’s death:
“And which of you,” he inquired, looking amiably round, “is responsible for dear uncle’s death? Or don’t you know?”
This airy question produced a feeling of tension, which was possibly Randall’s object. Mrs. Lupton said: “that is not amusing nor is this a time for jokes in bad taste.”
Randall opened his eyes at her. “Dear aunt, did you think I was joking?”
Just about every family member has some humorous aspect to his or her character, and putting them all in a room brings the worst out in them, making the family scenes – and there are many – the real highlight of the novel.
While I enjoyed the book for the dry humor and quick prose, I can’t call it a proper detective story – more of an old-fashioned thriller. A true detective story stars the detective; he can be any sort of detective, a police inspector or a PI, a sharp investigator or a drunken hack, but his personality drives the story and he becomes the hero (or antihero, as the case may be) through which the reader experiences the investigation and solution of the crime. Hannasyde’s character is bland – I wouldn’t even call him “vanilla,” which is rather an unfortunate synonym for “bland” since real vanilla flavor is anything but – with no distinguishing characteristics other than the natural suspicion you’d expect to see in any detective character, and the conversations between Hannasyde and Hemingway are merely explanations of where they stand in the investigation. Hannasyde’s best role is as a foil for Randall, who admires the detective’s intelligence but also plays him for his own benefit.
I’m also reluctant to categorize Behold, Here’s Poison as a true mystery because of how few clues there were to the killer’s identity. I rarely figure out who the killer is in better mysteries, but can always see how I should have figured it out once I reach the conclusion. In this case, however, Heyer’s explanation fit the story to date but was based on awfully scant evidence, some of which wasn’t even clear to me as I read it because Hannasyde didn’t discover it – in fact, he only solves the crime when another character fills in the missing blanks in the final chapter.
Those two complaints do undersell the book a little; it’s a good read because it’s full of witty dialogue and most of the Matthews clan are humorously drawn caricatures – a group of slightly batty would-be members of the gentry whose dialogue will elicit more smirks than laughs, but still plenty to run you through the book towards the conclusion of the murder. I would just urge you not to look at this as a detective story or as a mystery, but more along the lines of what might happen if P.G. Wodehouse decided to try to satirize those genres.
Next up: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a cute mystery that made Bradley a first-time novelist at age 70.