A Touch of Mystery with Derring-do: Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring

Heyer wrote The Talisman Ring when she was simultaneously creatively blocked on another, more serious book, and desperate for money. Turning to farce as inspiration worked remarkably well. She wrote the first half in a bubbling, creative rush, telling her agent’s assistant that she thought the book would turn out to be one of her more “amusing” works. She was correct. Although The Talisman Ring, as always, shows signs of her meticulous research, it is also a book that for the most part tosses away any pretense of seriousness. It marks a turning point between her early swashbucklers and works of derring-do to her neatly plotted comedies of manners, combining elements of both. It also happens to be one of her best and most enjoyable books.

Not that The Talisman Ring lacks derring-do. On the contrary, those insisting on a touch of realism in their novels might argue that it has rather too much derring-do: a murder, smugglers (or, if we are to be more polite to one of the heroes, free traders), disguises, a Headless Horseman (sorta), and even, to the thrill of both heroines, a Secret Panel. Alas, the Secret Panel is not attached to a moldering passageway hiding treasure and skeletons, but in an adventure, as the protagonists mournfully note, you can’t have everything.

As The Talisman Ring opens, the aging, dying Sylvester, ninth Baron Lavenham, has summoned his grand-nephew, Sir Tristram, to marry his granddaughter and Sir Tristram’s cousin, Eustacie, a refugee from Revolutionary France. He is worried about the passionate, romantic Eustacie, who has limited other options—in part because Sylvester has fought with nearly all of his neighbors, leaving her with almost no acquaintance in England to rely on.

Abusive and manipulative (he spends his final hours insulting everyone he encounters), Sylvester is the first of Heyer’s domestic tyrants: brutal older men who control their families and dependents through money and financial abuse. Heyer drew much of this from real life historical examples, and her awareness, even in her idealized version of the past, of the power aristocratic men could have over their financial dependents, particularly women with limited career options like Eustacie. But Heyer was also dealing with her aging mother as she wrote this novel, and it is highly probable that some of her frustrations about her mother’s attempts to manipulate family members and finances are in play here.

Because, for all Sylvester’s power over Eustacie and other dependents, he is also manifestly, terribly wrong. He has, as we soon learn, exiled his heir, Ludovic, under the false belief that Ludovic has committed murder. This in turn has forced Ludovic to work as a smuggler–er, I mean, noble free trader. Sure, the evidence is not exactly in Ludovic’s favor, but Sylvester does not exactly do much to investigate further. And although Tristram and Eustacie obediently agree to marry, it takes only a few paragraphs to realize that Sylvester’s belief that their marriage will go well (since Eustacie is French and understands these sort of things) is completely and utterly wrong. Sir Tristram, after all, is a sensible sort of person who does not believe in Headless Horsemen and believes he would be sorry for anyone heading to the guillotine, not just beautiful young women standing alone in tumbrils. Eustacie, in contrast, is a romantic sort of person who is always imagining her own highly dramatic deaths. (Yes, in the plural. She does this a lot.)

Age, notes Heyer here and elsewhere, may bring power of a kind, particularly financial, and knowledge of how to manipulate and brutalize people. But it does not always bring wisdom. For all their youth and impetuousness, Eustacie and (later) her cousin Ludovic turn out to be wiser than Sylvester, which is really saying something.

Fortunately for the plot, which could not have handled too many more of his manipulations, Sylvester soon dies. Eustacie, unable to face the prospect of marrying someone who refuses to ride ventre a terre to her deathbed, decides to run off and obtain a position as a governess, despite her manifold lack of qualifications for this position. Assisted by her maid, she leaves, most romantically, in the night, only to encounter her romantic cousin Ludovic. A few gunshots later, and she finds herself in another adventure—helping Ludovic regain his rightful place by clearing all suspicions of murder against him. Which, thanks to a Giant Plot Contrivance, just happens to require finding a Talisman Ring. Fortunately for them both, just as they stumble into a nearby inn, dripping with blood, they just happen to have the luck to run into Miss Sarah Thane, who is also looking for an adventure, and her brother, Sir Hugh Thane.

Not that the indolent Sir Hugh exactly involves himself very much in the plot, which, he admits, confuses him and delays him from getting his brandy. (Heyer’s characters always keep their priorities firmly in mind.) That role is for Eustacie, Ludovic, Sarah and a rather annoyed Tristram. It does not take any of the characters (or, for that matter, the readers) too long to discover the real villain. Proving his guilt, however, takes a bit more doing, hindered, as they are, by the clever villain, some decidedly not clever law enforcement officers, the sad fact that Ludovic, who will be arrested on sight, has to conceal himself in a cellar or in various disguises, Sarah Thane’s inability to draw (a very sad flaw in a heroine, she admits) and Sir Hugh Thane’s general inability to grasp any of the situation, except for the enjoyable truth that excellent brandy just happens to be available and definitely needs protection.

Heyer had always featured the police in her contemporary thrillers and mysteries, but this was her first use of law enforcement officers—or, as she more properly terms them, Bow Street Runners. This introduction is not entirely happy; the two main Bow Street Runners are used as figures of fun. They are fairly incompetent, but they are also, somewhat cruelly, tricked by the protagonists to appear even more incompetent, placing their careers in jeopardy. Given that the protagonists are protecting a murder suspect, and are not exactly turning to other law enforcement for assistance, this caused me to have a twinge or two on behalf of the Bow Street Runners. Not that law enforcement in general, as represented by Sir Hugh Thane, Justice of the Peace, who has strong feelings on the subject of smuggled liquor (he loves it and wants more of it), seems precisely something that anyone would turn to for assistance.

Heyer showed some of this same contempt for the law in her contemporary mysteries, which were frequently solved by gentlemen barristers rather than policemen, and often contained at least one bumbling policeman as a joke character. But she could also acknowledge occasional competence in the law, as she does here, and if the chief representative of the law (a Justice of the Peace) is generally clueless and tolerant of smuggling, and the two main police characters completely inept, the characters in general show a strong respect for the law and desire not to completely take the law into their own hands, and one competent representative of the law does show up later in the book.

But if the Bow Street Runners are in general not very helpful at solving the crime, they are helpful at creating several of the novel’s most hilarious scenes. Heyer found the character type useful enough that she was to bring back Bow Street Runners, usually incompetent, in several more books. I also had to laugh at their reactions to one of Ludovic’s most notable deeds, putting out sixteen candles by shooting them: they doubt the (actually true) story on the basis that “there was no sense in shooting at candles at all.” I hear you, Mr. Peabody, I hear you.

I’ve somehow managed to get through most of this post without focusing on how purely fun this book is, mostly thanks to the dialogue, the sheer enjoyment that both Eustacie and Sarah feel at finding adventure at last, Sarah’s general practicality and skepticism even in the face of such adventure, and Sir Tristram’s general exasperation at the entire affair. (Naturally, he ends up falling deeply and romantically in love, because Sarah is so delightful.) If I remain slightly doubtful that anyone would commit murder over a ring, and find some other parts of the plot, how shall I say this, improbable, it’s still one of my favorite Heyer books, even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, a Regency, and an excellent comfort read.

Time to skip two more books:

Behold, Here’s Poison: A murder mystery featuring sparkling dialogue and some of Heyer’s best secondary characters—the alarmingly stingy Harriet Matthews, her sister the redoubtable Gertrude Lupton, their sister-in-law the dramatic, elegant, and much oppressed Zoe Matthews, and their nephew, Randall Matthews, cheerfully called an “amiable snake,” another one of Heyer’s rude heroes. Also interesting for featuring one of the few Heyer characters probably meant to be read as gay. (I’ll have more on this when we reach Penhallow and some other books.) Alas, although the murder method is pretty ingenious (death by nicotine—I won’t spoil the precise methodology since it sets up one of the most hilarious scenes of the novel) the mystery itself, and the reveal of the murder, is very weak. Interestingly, given the incompetent Bow Runners just mentioned, this is another case which is not solved by the police, but one of the other characters.

They Found Him Dead: Arguably Heyer’s most implausible mystery yet, with a motive and reveal of the murderer that will leave most readers shrieking, UNFAIR, this book still has its delights, mostly in the characterization of the various murder suspects. Said suspects include Rosemary Kane, who attributes her dramatic tendencies to her Russian Blood, a probable tongue-in-cheek reference to the author, who also had Russian blood and a touch of drama. On the other hand, this is the first case actually solved by the police, which given the “huh” part of this mystery, is pretty clever on their part.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she has not encountered any Headless Horsemen.

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