The first of the mysteries featuring Superintendent Hannasyde published in 1935 was a very enjoyable read with plenty of humour, eccentric but fun characters, sparkling dialogue, and a pretty good mystery as well.
Our story opens in the village of Ashleigh Green, where Constable Dickenson is returning from night patrol. In the stocks, he spots a person sitting in evening dress slouched over as though drunk; but when he approaches him to ask him to move on, he finds it isn’t a man who’s drunk too much, but one who’s been stabbed through the heart. The local police feel the case is beyond their capabilities, so of course, the yard is called in and Superintendent Hannasyde and his deputy, Hemmingway are on the case.
The dead man is Arnold Vereker, the owner of a mining company, a wealthy but not a particularly well-liked man. More than one had a reason to dislike him, among them, the members of his own family. His half-sister Antonia ‘Tony’ who keeps bull-dogs, was in fact down in the village on the night in question, for Arnold had conveyed is disapproval of the man she was engaged to, making her a possible suspect. Her brother, Kenneth thinks little better of Arnold; an artist, he is in dire straits, ever in need of money, and as Arnold’s heir, he is very much a suspect, perhaps with a stronger motive than his sister. Then there is Rupert, Tony’s fiancé who is suspected of some dubious dealings in Arnold’s company where he worked. But while the mystery before him may not be the most complex (in fact, it seems simple on its face), with the eccentric members of the family—including Tony and Kenneth, and even their old housekeeper Murgatroyd, Superintendent Hannasyde feels rather lost in gauging his suspects. The one sensible member of the family, Kenneth and Tony’s cousin and also their solicitor, Giles Carrington helps reign in the two siblings a little, while also assisting the Superintendent in his investigations.
This was a very enjoyable read for me and I had fun all through. In the five Heyer mysteries I have read so far, what stands out is her characters and that was the case in this one as well. The Vereker family (and really those associated with them as well) seems entirely eccentric, and each more trying than the next when it comes to their involvement in the mystery, and interactions with the police. Both Tony and Kenneth are very bright (but perhaps a little more so than is good for them), but also rather over the top, not only cheeky in their responses but discussing the crime and possible suspects including each other in a matter of fact way, which leaves one wondering whether one should be a little shocked (it is murder they are talking about after all) or laugh, though I must say, one does end up laughing a lot (I do realise if I were in Hannasyde’s place, I’d be tearing my hair and not as calm as him). There is also their housekeeper Murgatroyd who seems much on the same lines. Kenneth’s fiancé Violet Williams is visibly a gold-digger (the siblings, particularly, Tony say so to her face); his childhood friend, Leslie Rivers, also in love with him can be rather intense when it comes to anything to do with Kenneth; Rudolph Mesurier, Tony’s fiancé, who is a bit of a crook himself seems tame in comparison (and nowhere as intelligent as the others). Giles Carrington is the only ‘normal’ one who is bright but not eccentric like his cousins, but he too, while helping Hannasyde is unable to quite pinpoint whether or not his cousins were involved.
The writing is wonderful, and the dialogue—especially between the Vereker siblings—is witty and amusing; for instance;
He wants me to give you his love. He’s just like that.
He always was. I can’t rise to those affectionate heights but tell him I congratulate him on not being dead…
Their discussions about the crime might take one aback for a moment but they are so entertaining that one almost forgets they are speaking of something quite so serious.
But despite all of the humour and wit, there is also a serious mystery involved, and the case does have some twists and turns and developments one doesn’t quite see coming. When whodunit is revealed (and here it is Giles and not Hannasyde who ends up solving things), one realises there were a few hints along the way, but really, the peculiarities of the characters are enough to keep us guessing all through.
I absolutely loved this one and am looking forward to reading more of Heyer’s mysteries soon.
(In some ways, I was reminded of Crispin’s Gervase Fen books where also the writing and wit simply shine all through).