LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
A Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer
The Sergeant, meanwhile, was turning over a collection of photographs and snapshots laid on the desk. ‘Looks like you weren’t so far out, Glass,’ he remarked. ‘I have to hand it to the late Ernest. He certainly knew how to pick ’em. Regular harem!’ He picked up a large portrait of a dazzling blonde, dressed, apparently, in an ostrich-feather fan, and regarded it admiringly. ‘That’s Lily Logan, the dancer. What a figure!’
Glass averted his eyes with a shudder. ‘Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion!’
‘That’s what you think,’ said Hemingway, laying Lily Logan down, and looking critically at another smiling beauty. ‘Went the pace a bit, didn’t he? Hullo!’ His eyes had alighted on the portrait of a curly-headed brunette. He picked it up. ‘Seems to me I’ve seen this dame before.’ ‘As his female acquaintance seems to have consisted largely of chorus girls, that’s not surprising,’ said Hannasyde dryly.
commentary: Although better-known for her Regency romances, Georgette Heyer wrote a dozen or so mysteries over the years, and they are much better than you might be expecting. I like them for their humour and great characters, and some of the plotting and cluing is very strong. Heyer was an undoubted and outrageous and unashamed snob, and there are often some cringeworthy moments in the books: you’re not left in doubt as to who is upper class and who is not, who is admirable and who is not.
But – unlike most of her contemporaries – there is never any nonsense about honour and shame and stiff upper lips. I particularly enjoy that many of the posh characters get very busy accusing each other, nobody tries to pass it off on the servants, and anyone who is under suspicion is usually rather pleased about the fact. Men are not desperate to protect their innocent womenfolk. Key participants have been known to build up cases against themselves for the benefit of the rather confused police. It is endlessly entertaining. She knows when one of her characters is good value, and makes sure we get the full benefit.
A Blunt Instrument is often cited as the best of the books: I prefer Envious Casca – but mostly because of the brilliant social comedy and wonderfully vulgar women. This one relies on its very clever solution too much, and there aren't quite enough of Heyer's splendid scenes of young people being lazily rude to each other. But it has its moments – I like this:
A lock of lank dark hair fell over his brow; he wore a pleated shirt, and a deplorable tie, and looked, to PC Glass, like a poet.There is a young man who has on his dressing-table
bottles of hair oil, shaving lotion, nail varnish, and scent.Intriguing I thought (it is clear that these are not from female visitors).
At one point the police summarises the state of play as to who was busying about on the night of the murder:
We started off with one man, and we’ve now got one lady, one jealous husband, one outside broker, one dead cabaret-girl, one criminal and one suspicious-looking nephew implicated in it. And we’ve only been at work on it since 9.00 this morning. If it goes on at this rate, we shan’t be able to move for suspects in a couple of days’ time.Now that is exactly what you want in your proper Golden Age detective story.
The only thing about the plot is that if you do pick up on an early clue or moment, you are left only with the cleverness of the way Heyer tells the tale - and it is admirable - but no more surprises.
The NYPL has an absolutely extraordinary collection of photographs of variety artistes – it was hard for me only to use two of them. The whole set can be found here, and I highly recommend them. These two show Maria Ley, and a dancer in a beaded costume.
There’s a good number of Georgette Heyer’s other books to be found on the blog.