Sparkling Murder: Georgette Heyer’s Death in the Stocks

Having 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.


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