Behold, Here’s Poison (1936) is the second of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries featuring Superintendent Hannasyde; in these Hemingway, who later features in his own subset of mysteries, is Sergeant.
Behold, Here’s Poison opens below-the-stairs in Poplars, where the unpleasant and domineering patriarch Gregory Matthews lives with his older sister, Harriet, widowed sister-in-law, Zoe, and Zoe’s two children—Guy, who works as an interior decorator in his own venture in partnership with a friend, and Stella. Living close by is Gregory’s married sister, Mrs Lupton, with her husband, Henry and one daughter Janet while another married daughter Agnes also lives not too far. Another nephew and Gregory’s heir Randall lives in London. The morning our story opens, Gregory is found dead in bed. The family put it down to natural causes for Gregory had heart trouble, and had eaten a heavy meal the previous night (including ‘duck’ as Harriet stresses multiple times, rather than the cutlets she’d ordered for him). The doctor, Deryk Fielding agrees that the symptoms are all of syncope, but Mrs Lupton, who is rather like her brother in character, demands a post mortem. While this may have been done just out of spite, it turns out that Gregory had in fact been murdered, poisoned, and with nicotine no less—not a very ‘common’ poison.
Hannasyde arrives with Hemingway and the local inspector in tow, only to find yet another dysfunctional family, full of eccentrics, most of them constantly at loggerheads, if not at each other’s throats. Any of them could have done it and most did have a motive—money and love—the usual suspects among them. But which of them did?
In its broad structure, this book was much like the previous Hannasyde mystery, Death in the Stocks, with a dysfunctional family with an unlikeable patriarch, a pair of siblings, of which the girl (here Stella) is engaged to a man whom the patriarch disapproves of (here Dr Fielding); the boy in need of money (and here also in danger of being shipped off to Brazil), among other elements. But despite the similarities, it was very much its own story.
This book one once again stands out for its writing, eccentric characters and humour. Among the characters, a couple of standouts for me were aunt Harriet, who has an economy-mania to the extreme—so much so that she does some rather morbid things, apart from trying to cut back on expenses so much that people are loath to eat a meal in the house. Then, somewhat on the lines of the Vereker siblings in the previous book, we have Randall Matthews, who drips sarcasm but is also far brighter than he’d like to let on, although we get many hints of this as our story progresses. We also run into a few of the characters from the previous book, which I very much enjoyed, since like in Barbara Pym’s books for instance, one gets to know what they’ve been up to since our previous meeting. Heyer’s writing and the humour in the story are wonderful as always, though in terms of pure dialogue, I felt there was more sparkle in the previous book.
There is also a romance thread to which I picked up a hint fairly early on, which led me to count one character at least out of it (though I did wonder if Heyer would still surprise me). There is a fair bit of banter between them, but Stella, at least seems to mean it some of the time.
As far as the mystery itself was concerned, I could not at all guess whodunit so that element took me entirely by surprise. Also, the why was something I didn’t work out, but there were a couple of elements as to which I was able to pick up clues as the story progressed (and I think other mystery readers would be able to as well), but which Hannasyde seems to pick up on much later (but then again, we’ve seen and heard things he hasn’t).
A delightful read with a great set of characters, and a mystery I could not guess, this one kept me engrossed all the way till the end.