Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Forgotten Book - Penhallow

There are two writers, long popular with many readers, for whose mystery novels I have always had a blind spot. One is Patricia Wentworth, the other is Georgette Heyer. I can't summon up much enthusiasm for Wentworth's Miss Silver, I'm sorry to say,, and I've stared Heyer novels more than once, only to give up at an early stage. But several people whose judgement I respect rate both these writers highly. I therefore resolved to try again, and so I read Heyer's Penhallow from start to finish.

It's a country house story. Old man Penhallow rules his family with a rod of iron, and what is worse,his extravagance means that the estate risks running out of money. He's a nasty piece of work, the old chap, someone who takes pleasure in hurting people, not least his much younger wife. He likes having staff and family members at his beck and call. A character who rejoices in the name of Jimmy the Bastard is both a servant and an illegitimate child; and it turns out that Jimmy is not the only person in the family whose lack of legitimacy means he has no claim on the estate when the old tyrant's life finally (and very belatedly) comes to an end.

Heyer was a very competent writer, who retains a following, mostly for her historical romances, but also for her forays into crime. She was never much interested in the plotting of a mystery - a task generally delegated to her husband, it seems. On this occasion, he did not bother to come up with any sort of puzzle - this is one of the least mysterious of books, and the detective work is perfunctory in the extreme. .

Every now and then, a member of the family tells the others how loathsome they all are, and each time I found myself agreeing. The awfulness of Penhallow and his tribe is established early on, but this doesn't stop Heyer spending another 400 pages or so ramming home the message. To me, it felt like a wearisome, never-ending soap opera, going on and on and on and on. There's an explanation for this, according to some sources, who suggest that Heyer wrote the book with a view to escaping from her contract with her then publishers. Yet her biographer, Jennifer Kloester, provides a rather more nuanced account of the writing of the book,which indicates that Heyer was actually pretty happy with it. For the time being at least, however, she remains one of my crime fiction blind spots..  

10 comments:

Deb said...

Count me in your corner when it comes to Heyer's mysteries. I've always loved her regency romances which tend to be both frothy and serious and well-plotted. I tried a few of her mysteries and found them so arch they were almost camp and so sloppily-plotted I guessed the culprit with the first half of the book. Perhaps the light touch and agreeably romantic air that made Heyer such an excellent writer of regencies is what made it difficult for her to write in a genre that requires a deeper, more serious touch.

Christopher Greaves said...

I know what you mean about Heyer - I tried reading her 'Footsteps in the Dark' recently and found it sloppy and amateurish - I couldn't get through it. But some of her books are much better: 'No Wind of Blame' isn't bad and 'Detection Unlimited' is an enjoyable and satisfying piece of work.

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, Christopher - thanks. I'm glad it's not just me! Deb, your explanation seems convincing to me. Chris, I'll take a look at one of the titles you mention at some future date.

Christine said...

I feel the same about Patricia Wentworth these days, though I used to like her about thirty years ago. I gave my mother's paperbacks to Oxfam - Georgette Heyer, too.

Martin Edwards said...

Glad we are of one mind, Chrissie!

Lucy R. Fisher said...

So arch that she's almost camp? I found her mysteries negligible AS mysteries, but utterly fascinating for the contemporary snobbery.

Clothes In Books said...

I'm of Lucy's view. I don't think Penhallow is much good, tbh, but some of the others are splendid - Envious Casca (now re-issued as Christmas Party) is hilarious.

Brian Hayden said...

What writer would you recommend for someone who has read most of Agatha Christie's books, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josefhine Tey and Dorothy Sayers. Thanks. Brian

Martin Edwards said...

Lucy, Moira, thanks. I'll look out for Envious Casca.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Brian. The best of Gladys Mitchell are worth a look (Speedy Death, Mystery of a Butcher's Shop and some others) but they are a mixed bunch. I like ECR Lorac (a female writer) who is low-key but fairly consistent. Among male writers, Anthony Berkeley, Philip Macdonald, and Henry Wade are my favourites. Hope this helps.