“I don’t write problems,” said Royden, in rather too high a voice. “And enjoyment is the last thing I expect anyone to feel! If I’ve succeeded in making you think, I shall be satisfied.”
“A noble ideal,” commented Stephen. “But you shouldn’t say it as though you thought it unattainable. Not polite.”
Georgette Heyer’s agreement with the publishers of her mystery novels stipulated that she was to deliver a mystery/suspense novel to them once per year, a schedule she kept with admirable consistency until the outbreak of World War II. Stress over family members, in particular sorrow for a brother-in-law killed in the early years of the war, and fear for the safety of her husband, who had joined the Home Guard, made it difficult for her to write, or focus on something she found absolutely pointless under the circumstances. She procrastinated a bit with the escapist fluff The Corinthian, but she could make excuses for only so long, and eventually she returned to writing Envious Casca in slow bits and pieces. It was to be one of the grimmest yet best of her mystery novels.
Envious Casca takes place during a remarkably edgy Christmas holiday, almost certainly in either 1938 or 1939. Heyer does not mention the war specifically, but its tension seems everywhere, affecting most of the characters who, in a degree strong even for Heyer, spend most of the novel sniping at each other both before and after the murder. They are an ill assorted group, with little reason to love each other, assembled mostly to celebrate Christmas—a holiday none of them seem to take much interest in. Including their host, who, as he reminds us acidly, did not exactly invite any of his guests.
Not that humor is entirely missing: a highlight of the book, early on, is a scene where a hopeful young playwright attempts to do a reading for a deeply unenthusiastic audience—one that includes, however, a man who could potentially bankroll the play, and several others who for multiple reasons want to keep that man as calm as possible. Given the play’s subject matter, “calm” is not the primary response. The scene reads as if inspired by some real life event where Georgette Heyer found herself listening to material somewhat too avant-garde or shocking for its audience.
It leads directly to the murder, which, as in her other two good mystery novels (Death in the Stocks and A Blunt Instrument) uses a simple method: stabbing, with a slight twist: the dead man is found behind doors and windows locked from the inside, in a classic locked room mystery. That does force the detectives (Hemingway, still with a flair for drama and psychology) to spend some time investigating the puzzle, but allows Heyer to spend more of her time focusing on characters. And here she succeeds to a degree unusual in her mystery novels.
Sure, some of the characters are just repeats of character types she had used before, although the silly and generally useless blonde Valerie is new for Heyer, as is her almost complete subjugation to her commanding mother. Matilda is a sharper, more embittered version of the romantic women protagonists in Heyer’s detective novels. Like the others, she is not a suspect. Paula is another one of Heyer’s overly dramatic women, although for a change, Paula has a successful stage career of her own, if one that is not quite successful enough to put on a play that she believes will make her career. Roydon is another one of Heyer’s weak and not entirely successful artists, Mottisfont another slightly shady (well, ok, very shady) businessman. Stephen is another one of her typically rude male protagonists.
But even here, Heyer manages unusual character depth and traits—starting with Paula. Heyer had previously featured women in successful professional careers before—the dancer Lola di Silva, commercial artist Violet Williams, and the detective novelist Sally Drew, as well as women working as companions and secretaries. None, however, had the passion for art and career that Paula does; indeed, she is with the arguable exception of the Duke of Wellington Heyer’s most driven character. Even a murder does not stop her plans to put on the play that she believes she is meant to do, and her passion drives much of the novel.
We’ve discussed Heyer’s admiration for rude men (and, well, rude people in general) in her fiction before, the way so many of her heroes turn out to be the “rudest men in London,” called so directly to their faces. Stephen is almost, but not quite, of that type: he’s certainly rude to the point of brusqueness, and he goes out of his way to needle and even brutalize the others, particularly Uncle Joseph. Oddly, however, he is kind to Maud, an action so out of character that the others immediately assume Stephen must have stolen Maud’s beloved book about the Empress Elizabeth of Austria.
But Stephen is not quite in their mold, either. Heyer’s previous male characters noted for rudeness had all had some justification for it—wealth, a place in society, fashion sense (this is Heyer), a gift for driving curricles, or artistic ability. In other words, they were rude because they could get away with it. Stephen lacks all of this; his sole talent is for sarcasm. They were also at wits; Stephen is generally just insulting. He also goes well beyond mere rudeness to outright baiting and obnoxious behavior; it’s frankly surprising that anyone invites him anywhere.
As the novel progresses, however, Heyer drops hints that Stephen’s behavior has a cause: he is stressed about his current employment (which is nonexistent) and his connection with a firm that has been engaging in highly illegal gun running. (In an interesting sidenote, the only people not shocked and infuriated about the gun-running are the police; even Uncle Joseph, no stranger to some of the seedier sides of life, as he reminds us, is profoundly shocked.) And Stephen is aware that, in what is a complete failure for his class, he will not be able to keep the family home, even with a great inheritance.
In short, he is a near failure, whose rudeness comes not from arrogance, but anger. A marked change.
Others in the novel are also failures, or close to the edge of failing. Which means that the usual confidence so paramount in Heyer’s other mystery novels featuring aristocratic characters is generally gone. This adds to the novel’s tension—these are people genuinely afraid of being arrested, even those aware that they had nothing to do with the murder.
But it is also a reflection of Heyer’s awareness that the seemingly stable world of English country houses that had been regained after World War I was about to change. It is also her first book where the characters openly admit that they cannot keep the country house, foreshadowing the estate and land use issues that would become center to later books. Indeed, her later country house murders tended to take place in the Regency era; her contemporary mysteries set after World War II acknowledged the end of that era. In this new world, Stephen and Morrisfont and Royden face uncertain futures, and this Christmas, they are aware of it.
And for all Heyer’s general insistence on manners and the superiority of aristocrats, once again, with a few exceptions, the more rude and obnoxious someone is, the more honest and dependable said person is likely to be.
Perhaps her greatest triumphs, however, are two of the characters usually trying not to be rude, at least on the surface: good natured, yet tactless, Uncle Joseph and his wife, placid Maud. Joseph, having spent a lifetime on the stage and in other, less reputable activities, has returned to his brother’s home completely broke, determined, as he tells us, to be the Good Uncle. He who wants to make everyone happy and yet succeeds in making everybody decidedly unhappy. Maud, with her decidedly lower class origins, exposed in the play reading scene, remains completely calm in the upper class environment where she now resides—so calm that even the duties of a hostess and a murder on Christmas Eve hardly bother her. She remains focused on her own interests—knitting, church, and biographies of the Empress of Austria, saying, whenever asked to do more, that she never interferes. Is Maud as blank as she seems, or not? Heyer plays with the question until the last few pages, creating a remarkably subtle portrait of a seemingly dull woman. Rereading the novel in the context of Maud’s stated policy of non-interference is a rather different experience; pay close attention to her reaction to statements made to her, and the evidence she gives.
Envious Casca may not be as amusing as Heyer’s other detective novels, and the signs of strain throughout may wear on some readers. Other readers may complain that one major clue is somewhat dependent upon historical knowledge. To be fair, this is the history-obsessed Heyer, that factoid may have been somewhat better known in World War II, and the mystery can be solved without that knowledge. (It also leads to a pretty funny scene at the end.) But it is the one time she manages the Christie trick of dropping clues right in front of her readers knowing that the readers will fail to see it (it’s not the same as the historical clue.) And as her one successful locked room mystery, and her one mystery (other than Penhallow) where the motive and murder are completely believable, it is probably her most successful.
Envious Casca marked an end to Heyer’s once per year detective thriller output. She included mystery in detective elements in some of her later Regency novels, and was to write another novel featuring a murder, Penhallow, within the next couple of years for her mystery publishers, but although set in a traditional English country house, Penhallow is not a traditional mystery novel. She was later to write two more detective novels to earn some quick cash, but although both are somewhat amusing, both have a tired feel, and lack the full sparkle of her earlier work.
She had no hesitations about giving up the genre. She claimed she had never enjoyed writing them, no matter how sparkling and amusing many of them could be.
Next up: Faro’s Daughter.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she reads a lot of mystery novels.