The mysterious gate-crasher in fancy dress...

the book:

Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer

published 1933

[At a fancy dress ball]

‘Why are masks de rigueur, Marguerite?’ he inquired.

‘You mean we ought just to have had dominoes with them? I know, but I specially wanted a fancy-dress ball, and masks are such fun that I thought we might have them too.’

‘Your brother doesn’t wear one, I notice,’ remarked the sheikh, nodding to where Fountain, an imposing Cardinal Wolsey, stood talking to Mme de Pompadour.

‘No, because he’s the host. Shall I find you a partner, Mephistopheles?’

Amberley was watching a girl at the other side of the ballroom. ‘Will you introduce me to the contadina?’ he asked. Joan glanced in the girl’s direction. ‘Yes, of course, but I don’t know who she is.’

‘Kitty Crosby, isn’t it?’ said the sheikh.

‘I thought Kitty was coming as a gipsy.’

‘Oh, was she? It might be Miss Halifax. No, I don’t think it is, though.’ Joan looked up at Amberley. ‘That’s the fun of it. Do you know, I didn’t recognise one of my oldest friends? Come on, I’ll introduce you.’ She led him to where the contadina was standing.  

[They dance] …‘A bit a mob, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Do you think the Fountains can really know everyone here tonight?’

 ‘Oh, but surely!’

 ‘In these days of gate-crashing …’ murmured Mr Amberley.

 ‘I don’t think that is done in the country,’ she said. ‘I expect you know much more about it than I do,’ he agreed politely.

observations: The first couple of lines of this extract could almost come from one of Ms Heyer’s regency romances, where much is made of dominoes (experienced readers know these are cloaks) and masks. But the costume ball is rather wasted here, as, sad to say, it is in many books – lacking in details and in genuine advances of the plot. The description of the Cardinal and Pomp is eerily prescient – only too imaginable as Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel in a famous photo of them as a different Cardinal and Marie Antoinette.

This book has some funny moments, but not much in the way of really impressive detection, and it goes on a bit – perhaps Heyer kept her best plots for her romances (The Unknown Ajax, 1959, has an extremely impressive, far superior plot involving covering up a crime).
There is one very unusual feature of this book - the characters are: Amberley, Brown & Baker, Collins & Corkran, Dawson, Fountain, Gubbins, Harper, Jenkins, Ludlow, Matthews. It’s hard to say if that shows imagination or the lack of it.

Links up with: Most recent fancy dress party on the blog is
here – click on the label below for more. Cardinal Wolsey in his robes is here.

On first reading, Clothes in Books (so snobbish!) vaguely assumed that a contadina was some kind of Italian contessa, but it is revealed later that it means peasant-girl, countrywoman.
The picture is by photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, and is kindly made available on Flickr by the National Media Museum. (A different photo on the same page is described as the contadina, but this looks more likely).


  1. Moira - How funny about those names! And thanks for the look at fancy dress events. Interesting observation too about how authors who write in more than one genre sometimes seem to have more successful plots in one of their genres than in the other. I hadn't thought about that but you've a good point.

  2. Love the pic. I love Heyer but have more problems getting into the detective stories. love the frothy delight of the Regencies.

    Have a great week.

  3. Was just re-reading Arabella by Heyer, and Chapter 2 has a fabulous description of late 18th century clothing as our heroine looks into her mother's old trunks. I'd love to see a post on clothing from Heyer's Regency books. Her descriptions of men's clothing (dandies, Weston coats, Hessian boots etc) live in my memory :)

    1. Oh I'll definitely have to go and look at that one! I am going to do a different Heyer book soon - I'm always a bit nervous because she obviously went to so much trouble to research her clothes, I'm worried I'll get it wrong. But they are such a good resource for me, I need to be braver!

  4. I just love the title of this book! Seemingly we are supposed to completely unironically wonder why anyone would shoot such an unimportant person, and I find the class snobbery hilarious.

    1. I have a lot of time for Georgette Heyer, she is very funny and good at plotting - but she is the Queen Snob of all time! She never makes the slightest attempt to hide or diminish it, she is completely unashamed...


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