Friday 17 May 2024

Forgotten Book - The Unfinished Clue

My first experience with Georgette Heyer's detective novels was disappointing. Penhallow is, I think, widely regarded as a poor book. But Nigel Moss persuaded me to take another look at her, and recommended The Unfinished Clue (1934). He's a good judge - it's a light, entertaining mystery in the classic Golden Age vein.

The victim is not a blackmailer, but old General Billington-Smith is so utterly horrible that almost everyone who sets foot in his country house has cause to want him dead. And in due course he is found stabbed in his study. No great loss, frankly. Inspector Harding from Scotland Yard is called in by the Chief Constable, and proves to be a likeable character. He even falls in love with a member of the house party, who is sister-in-law of the deceased.

Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed this novel in the Sunday Times and pointed that it is full of cliches, but that it's written in such a lively way, with a nice line in comedy, that this doesn't matter. I agree. The 'unfinished clue' of the title is a 'dying message clue' scribbled by the General on a scrap of paper. I didn't find it difficult to figure out the meaning of the clue, although some aspects of the solution to the puzzle did elude me.

Heyer's strength was her dialogue rather than her plotting, and she excels at allowing her characters to forward the story through conversation (a contemporary writer who displays the same mastery of dialogue is Simon Brett). I liked this book, and thanks to Nigel's advocacy, I'll be happy to read more Heyer one of these days.


Liz Gilbey said...

Try Envious Casca. It is a Christmas house party murder, and one of the things I like most about it are the wonderfully delineated characters and the perfect reflection of the language and social behaviours of the period, which she captures with an objective eye and a wry sense of humour.(I'll bring it down to Hawarden for you)
Much as I appreciate the knowledge she has of the Regency period, and has rather sweetly passed forward to future generations, I have never been able to read her better known romances, so the appeal of Bridgerton passes right over my head. Mary And George is more my thing; a lifelong addiction to Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy and a professional specialism does that; currently on my third rewatch. Oh dear. That may be an admission too far!

Michael Lydon said...


I recently reread “Penhallow” and rather enjoyed but it is more of a family saga than a detective novel, even though a murder is crucial to the plot. Apparently Georgette Heyer wrote it in order to break her contract with Hodder and Stoughton, hence its untypical plot and tone.

Her other detective novels are entertaining to read, though not necessarily demanding as puzzles. “Why Shoot a Butler?”, “Death in the Stocks” and “A Blunt Instrument” have very atmospheric opening chapters.

One thing to be commended in her detective books is that her professional police are generally portrayed as serious and usually get to the solution at the same time or even before the talented amateur.

She is definitely worth keeping in your “To Be Read” list of authors.


Christina Koning said...

I've enjoyed several of Heyer's mysteries -- 'Death in the Stocks' is good, and 'Behold, Here's Poison'. I think she does dialogue rather well.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Liz, Michael, and Christina. Good to know that three good judges rate Heyer highly and I will certainly give her another go.

Jeff L. said...

Thank for this recommendation - I very much enjoyed "The Unfinished Clue". I agree with the charge that it employs some cliches and that the dialogue and interplay between the characters carries the story. I wouldn't be surprised if the main fault found by detection club members is that it isn't really a fair play mystery. She does a very Christie like job of suggesting alternate possible culprits - of course I fell for it and thought Mrs. Twining would be the culprit.

I followed it up with "Why Shoot the Butler" which is really a fairly good thriller and terrific mystery - though again not fair play at all with the amateur detective holding a lot of cards that he doesn't reveal until the end. I didn't find this story clich├ęd though and the two protagonists in this one were not cliches at all though - the female protagonist in particular was fierce, not resembling the stock perky, innocent, fundamentally "nice" girl like her counterpart in "Clue."; and the "hero" was a legitimate jerk, though he reveled in it. His aunt was a nice surprising strong side character as well. Looking forward to reading the remaining mysteries and really glad they are available on kindle. Best