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..