Tue
Dec 4 2012 2:00pm

Sparkling Murder: Georgette Heyer’s Death in the Stocks

Sparkling Murder: Death in the Stocks by Georgette HeyerHaving been rather harsh on Georgette Heyer’s first three mystery novels, I thought it was only fair to chat about Death in the Stocks, her first entirely successful mystery novel—and one which, probably not coincidentally, features the same sort of sparkling dialogue that would later mark the best of her Regency novels.

Death in the Stocks opens dramatically, with a body found—spoiler!—in the stocks of the village green. The bizarre placement startles the local police, who call in Scotland Yard. In these pre CSI days, Scotland Yard finds themselves equally stymied. The victim, the wealthy Arnold Vereker, had no wife or children, but he does have a few eccentric siblings with excellent motives for murder. And none of these siblings have excellent alibis. Adding to Scotland Yard’s frustrations, the siblings all openly admit to disliking or hating Arnold Vereker. One, Antonia, even admits that she burned the letter Arnold sent her shortly before his murder the moment she heard about the murder, since it’s the sort of letter that would drive anybody to murder. Not for the first time, her cousin and solicitor Giles Carrington finds himself hitting his head in frustration.

To be fair, the Verekers would probably drive anyone to frustration—as Violet, engaged to marry another one of them, Kenneth, merrily points out. Calling them “eccentrics” is perhaps unkind to eccentrics. Possessing small incomes, Kenneth and Antonia live in a London flat with a single servant, who in the classic British tradition is both highly critical and completely loyal to them both. Here, they entertain their respective fiancées, Violet and Rudolph, and occasional friends Leslie and Giles, and the occasional long-lost brother, in a decidedly carefree and careless manner. And, to the exasperation of all, they cheerfully discuss their own motive and alibis—and how they just might have gotten away with it—sometimes right in front of the police.

Their friends object, often loudly, but as Antonia cheerfully says, if she and Kenneth don’t mind talking about the murder, why should anyone else feel shirty about it? And their callousness provides Heyer with a slick way to deal with the general problem of talking about a murder in a nicely gossipy, light way that remains realistic. (To achieve the same effect, Agatha Christie had to bring in gossipy tertiary characters.)

That this works at all is probably thanks to the characters of Kenneth and Roger Vereker, and to a lesser degree Antonia. Kenneth Vereker, a brilliant painter, owes something to Heyer’s earlier creation of my lord Barham, in his supreme self-confidence. But Kenneth is considerably more self-absorbed, with little interest in anyone other than, arguably, his sister and one or two close friends. Roger’s supreme carelessness and general disinterest in much of anything—including his brother’s murder—provide additional comedy. And the forthright Antonia, with her love for dogs, may shock one or two readers—but also provides a character for the audience to identify with. All three also provide many of the novel’s more hilarious moments, most notably in the scene where Roger attempts to give the police his alibi.

If the plot mostly follows the classic British Country House mystery murder pattern (victim, detecting, another victim, more detecting, final summary by Brilliant Detective with subsequent arrest of the murderer) the setting is pure London, and contains several distinctive Heyer touches, most notably in its witty dialogue. The setting is something Heyer knew well: young, upper-middle-class artists with independent incomes, of a sort, living in London, a world she herself had briefly inhabited and remained in touch with through her close friends, fellow novelists who remained in London. Giles Carrington, the solicitor/gentleman detective, is probably loosely based on Heyer’s husband, who by this point had abandoned his work as a mining engineer and had begun to study law. (He would become a barrister a few years after the publication of this book.) These elements give Death in the Stocks a somewhat realistic touch, for all of its comedy and over-the-top characters.

And although in a typical (for Heyer) example of upper-class superiority, the police are not the ones to solve the murder, the book did serve to introduce the two detectives she would use for most of her later murder mystery novels, with the notable exceptions of Penhallow (not exactly intended as a mystery novel) and The Quiet Gentleman (set in the Regency period.) Unlike most of her other police characters, and in particular the lower class Bow Street Runners that she would primarily use for comedic purposes in later books, Inspector Hannasyde and Sergeant (later Inspector) Hemingway are competent and intelligent, generally well-educated men. Both tend to be somewhat bland, but Hemingway was to develop something of a personality, focused on drama and flair, and if he is not exactly the most memorable detective of Golden Age fiction, he is at least one of the more credible.

And for all of its farce, Death in the Stocks does offer a genuinely neat little mystery. It may lack the neatness and clue dropping of Agatha Christie’s best work, but clues are dropped, and, unusually enough in a Heyer mystery, the motive more or less makes sense (let us say, more sense than most of her other mysteries) and the murderer does not come completely out of HUH? I suspect that Heyer readers, familiar with her character types and dialogues, will find the murderer somewhat easier to spot, but mystery readers in general should find this satisfying. If you are only planning to read one Heyer mystery, this should probably be the one, and if you are planning on reading more, this is not a bad place to start, either. (Although if you are planning on reading all of them, do try to get Why Shoot a Butler and Footsteps in the Dark out of the way early, saving the better, or at least more entertaining, mysteries for later.)


The latest bit of Great Detecting Work conducted by Mari Ness consisted of figuring out that the dead lizard in the hallway was most probably killed by one of the two cats. She continues to investigate both suspects. All three live in central Florida.

8 comments
Azara microphylla
1. Azara
I agree - if I was going to recommend just one Heyer mystery to a friend, this would be it. While the snobbery is so much more glaring in the 1930s setting than in the historical novels, the story is entertaining enough to enjoy in spite of that.

I think I might have mentioned it in a previous discussion, but here again the upper middle class she's comfortable with is a surprisingly rootless one, where the money to support the lifestyle comes from business success a generation or two back, rather than from being an offshoot of an older family of the aristocracy or landed gentry.

The callousness of the Verekers comes off reasonably well here, but for me it ties in with that rather strange fascination Heyer seemed to have with out-and-out rudeness. It will come up again in some of the later books, but I definitely think there is something odd going on in the level of tolerance and even admiration Heyer has for her ruder characters.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
Interestingly enough, that snobbery gets somewhat undercut in another Heyer mystery. In the opening scene, one of the upper class snobs, who even has a title (although her son is a mere Mr. and a barrister), says some extremely cutting things about one of her neighbors who is, shall we say, common. (Also one of the only genuinely nice people in the book.) I was delighted when, at the end of novel, (spoiler) the son of the snob ends up engaged to the daughter of the common neighbor.

I think, in the historicals, it was easier for Heyer to either ignore lower or middle class people, or use them for comedic purposes. In the contemporary mysteries she definitely uses the servants for comedic fun, but she has a harder time turning the other lower class characters into comedic figures.

Heyer does have her sympathetic middle/lower class characters, but she's not always sure of what to do with them. I find it fascinating that she felt the need to follow up Bath Tangle, which features various social climbing characters and is very much about differences in rank, with Black Sheep, which undercuts many of her statements in the earlier novel. But we'll get to both.

And yes, you're absolutely right about the fascination with rudeness -- I planned to bring that up in particular while discussing Envious Casca and Faro's Daughter, but it is a repeating theme.
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
I find it fascinating that she felt the need to follow up Bath Tangle, which features various social climbing characters and is very much about differences in rank, with Black Sheep, which undercuts many of her statements in the earlier novel.

You know, that explains a lot to me, all of a sudden. I read Black Sheep first, and then went and read Bath Tangle, and oh, the mental whiplash! (Which I was already a little prepared for, having started with Cotillion, as it all goes a bit downhill compared to that, but still.) The characters of BS seemed a bit silly and full of themselves at times, but in an endearing way; I ended BT, if I'm remembering it properly, wanting the primary couple's honeymoon cruise to sink. Preferably somewhere where they'd be eaten by sharks.
Pamela Adams
4. Pam Adams
When I look back, my favorite Heyers tend to be the ones without rude men- I tend to think that Charles deserves his fate in The Grand Sophy.
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@fadeaccompli -- I find most of Heyer's romantic couples unconvincing, but the two leads of Bath Tangle are arguably the least convincing. They start by arguing, they spend the rest of the book mostly arguing, and end the book arguing. As far as I can tell Heyer decided that they were right for each other only because they came from the same social worlds/ranks. It's fascinating, largely because this is a book that basically says that social climbing will make you miserable -- and yet having rejected the idea of marrying outside one's rank, doesn't seem to suggest that marrying inside one's rank is going to make anyone happy either. Thus Black Sheep.

@Pam Adams -- Heh, he. I sense the conversations about The Grand Sophy are going to get amusing. For what it's worth, I'm not that convinced by the Sophy/Charles pairing either, but it's at least more convincing than the "romance" in Bath Tangle.
Caro
6. Caro
I'm always interested when people comment on class snobbery in Heyer's books. It seems like I should be more sensitive to this (I'm a sociologist and have spent a career thinking about class) but it doesn't bother me at all in Heyer's work. I find it either irrelevant or, more often, quite interesting. I tend to put it all into an academic category - something like: Class Snobbery as depicted in British Popular Literature between the Two Wars. I see it more as a reflection of the society that Heyer was writing in than as her individual failings in class fairness. And I find the society that is reflected quite interesting.

I bring this up because in this particular book I find the representations of class to be so interesting and so much a product of their times. Leonard and Virginia Woolf kept a servant very much like the one in this book, when they were pretty much destitute. Iirc, they were living on £60 a year, or something like that. She was an old family retainer who was as much a responsibility as a luxury. I always think of them when I read this book.
And, of course, of the rest of the Bloomsbury set. The people of that set were mostly living on very little (with help from a few who were pretty wealthy) and behaved pretty outrageously. They were also notorious snobs.

So, I really enjoy this odd little group. I find them very amusing and I like the particular way Heyer develops Antonia and Giles' relationship. We start in the middle with them, their backstory reveals itself and everything ends up as it should by the end.

Also, Hemmings and Hannasyde - I really think they do not work as characters. For one thing, both their names start with H and I get them mixed up. For another, they are pretty peripheral to this story. And Heyer never really finds her stride with them. I don't think there's a single mystery where they couldn't be replaced by "Police Unit 1 and Police Unit 2' with very little effect on the story.
Caro
7. Hilly
Yes, I found DitS to be one of the most engaging of G.Heyer's mysteries, and I'd recommend that a new reader start here ... just so they would have the joy of following up with Behold, Here's Poison, which is my favorite mystery and a sequel to this one.
Pamela Adams
8. Pam Adams
Sigh. I found the characters so annoying that I started hoping they were all guilty- Murder on the Bloomsbury Express?

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