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Locked Room Reviews:
Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca
A Christmas murder masterpiece?
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If your idea of a Merry Christmas is all about solving a really good case of bloody murder, Georgette Heyer’s ‘Envious Casca’ should be near the top of your reading list! Like Christie’s ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ (see review) this classic deals with another contentious family having a series of Christmas battles, that lead to the death of the family patriarch inside a locked room, but unlike Christie’s novel, this time Christmas is a necessary part of the plot, not a passing fancy, with all the dark and nasty familial tempests expertly contrasted with this season of peace and goodwill to all men. It is also a better locked room than Christie’s rather uninspired effort – unless you get the too often repeated clue.
Georgette Heyer (1902 – 1974) was an English historical romance and detective fiction novelist. Her writing career began in 1921, when she turned a story for her younger brother into the novel ‘The Black Moth’. Heyer essentially established the historical romance genre, especially its subgenre Regency romance. Her Regencies were inspired by Jane Austen, but unlike Austen, who wrote about and for the times in which she lived, Heyer was required to make her readers familiar with the period. Beginning in 1932, Heyer released at least one romance novel and one thriller each year, until ‘Envious Casca’, when her writing was disrupted by the war. Heyer has long been reported to have been a bit of a cynical snob, who gave no interviews, admired rude men, and was a strong believer in the class system, which helps explain many of the cutting barbs in her dialogue. She often populated her mysteries with extremely jaded figures, who are initially unsympathetic, then during the course of the novel, some fail and ignominiously exit the story, while others finally win us over and are redeemed. Some critics have suggested that Heyer’s detective novels are unoriginal, mere copies of Christie and others, but this is far too simplistic. None can equal Heyer’s razor sharp wit or the sophisticate ennui of her characters. In total, she wrote only a dozen mysteries. Four featuring Superintendent Hannasyde, four featuring his subordinate Inspector Hemingway, and another four non-series mystery novels.
‘Envious Casca’ is focused on a Christmas party (sometimes published as “A Christmas Party”) at Lexham Manor, the lavish country estate of the wealthy Nathaniel Herriard, who made his fortune trading with the east. No one can quite understand why the elderly bachelor bought such a large house, but before long his younger brother, Joseph, had arrived on his doorstep, accompanied by his inscrutable wife, Maud, a one time chorus girl now turned “static”. The always jubilant Joseph had run away from a lawyer’s office as a youth, to spend his life on the boards of a hundred theatres stretched about the globe, but permanently returned to England two years before this novel, to sponge off his irritable brother during his golden years.
Nat also receives frequent visits from his nephew, the son of another brother now deceased. Stephen Herriard, is generally assumed to be Nat’s heir, and his sister, Paula, an emotional actress who always gets her way, is also looking forward to a piece of the pie. Also present for this dark Christmas, is Edgar Mottisfont, Nat’s partner, and now the managing director of Harriard and Mottisfont, along with Mathilda Clare, a distant cousin. However, it is the final two guests that provide the fatal spark to this flammable Christmas tragedy. Stephen’s recent fiancé, Valerie Dean, a self centred, dim witted, egotistical blonde, has already been the subject of several quarrels between Stephen and his disapproving uncle, and now arrives to spend an uncomfortable Christmas under Nat’s roof. Heyer’s treatment of Valerie, and her equally demanding mother, are nothing short of brutal. The final person invited to the party is a young playwright, Willoughby Royden, dragged along by Paula, who is determined to get her conservative uncle to back Royden’s modern play which focuses on the sordid life of a prostitute. It is also soon discovered that Mottisfont is in the middle of a serious business dispute with Nat, and then there is the memorable butler, Sturry, always listening at keyholes – all of which makes this the perfect recipe for a disastrous Christmas Eve.
The Christmas party was the brain child of Uncle Joe, against Nat’s expressed wishes, and the cheery Christmas busybody soon festoons the Cromwellian mansion with holly, mistletoe, an ornate tree, and paper chains, annoying one and all, except for the imperturbable Maud. If all this was not bad enough, Nat is also suffering from lumbago, making him even more irritable than usual. The quarrels begin right on schedule, one after the other, with only Mathilda Clare escaping Nat’s wrath, while the sprightly Joseph constantly attempts to play the peacemaker – but only serves to incite further madness. He has gathered together one of the most disagreeable bunch of guests ever assembled under one roof, and the results are all too predictable.
All the tensions finally reach a peak on Christmas Eve, when Royden reads his play to the assembled family after tea, at the instigation of Paula and the irrepressible Uncle Joe! The scene is uncomfortably humorous, leaving the reader feeling Royden’s horrible angst, which Stephen is quick to turn to his advantage.
“I don’t write problems,” said Royden, in rather too high a voice. “And enjoyment is the last thing I expect anyone to feel! If I’ve succeeded in making you think, I shall be satisfied.”
“A noble ideal,” commented Stephen. “But you shouldn’t say it as though you thought it unattainable. Not polite.”
Nat is, of course, scandalized by the play, and the conversation soon devolves into a cannonade of insults, with Paula suggesting murder and threatening to waste all her inheritance on immoral plays, and Nat threatening to cut both her and Stephen out of his will. Just as he heads to his room for dinner, he stumbles over a step ladder Joseph has left on the half landing of the stairs, and in a final pique of anger and lumbago orders all the decorations to be removed, before he struggles up the stairs and slams his door. It is only when all the others assemble in the drawing room for cocktails before dinner and the appointed hour passes, that Joseph becomes concerned about Nat’s absence, and heads up the stairs to find his valet, Ford, unable to enter the room. Stephen is called in, and together with Ford, they burst the locked door, to find Nat sprawled on the floor. At first it looks as if he has merely fainted, but a closer examination finds a thin stab wound in the middle of his lower back. Of course, all the windows are sealed, except for a small ventilation space in the bathroom, which only a midget contortionist might have managed.
The local police, represented by Inspector Colwall, are the first on scene, but their regular detective is out with the flu, and Colwall is all to glad to get rid of this seemingly impossible crime, when the Chief Constable calls in Scotland Yard. Inspector Hemingway, a refreshingly normal Golden Age detective, who loves amateur theatre, takes over on Christmas Day, assisted by the none too bright, Sergeant Ware. Everything initially points to Stephen, including the discovery of his lost gold cigarette case inside the locked room, and his motive is well supplied by his constant quarrels with his uncle and the discovery of a will, made up by Joseph when Nat was ill two years earlier, which leaves most of the estate to this needy nephew, with only modest sums going to Paula and Joseph. The only thing preventing Stephen’s arrest is the locked room, which defeats every theory Hemingway can throw at it, until a critical forensics clue, missed by the locals, suddenly improves Stephen’s position and changes the entire picture! After this, suspicion is spread in all directions, with only Joseph and Tilda now exempt, as the happy go lucky uncle had been busy talking to Mathilda through the wall while she bathed before dinner on Christmas Eve, and was singing and humming when not actually engaged in conversation – clearly proving that he never went near Nat’s room. Interwoven throughout this mystery, are a long series of Maud’s comments on her current book, a life of Elizabeth Empress of Austria – until the book mysteriously disappears, to the relief of the rest of the household!
This is as far as we can go without destroying this great holiday mystery. Unfortunately, most locked room fans will figure this one out too quickly – especially those that have read S. S. van Dine’s Philo Vance novel, The Kennel Club Murders (1933), which I reviewed last month, and the same device was also mentioned several times by John Dickson Carr, including in his ‘In Spite of Thunder’ (1960).
The best part of this mystery is Heyer’s remarkable talent for developing strong characters and witty interaction. The sharp dialogue between the sniping, spiteful, young Herriards and the perennial optimist, Uncle Joe, is a true delight, very humorous and deliciously condescending. The constant back and forth is highly sophisticated, witty with a dark edge, and sarcasm drips from every page, yet they are far more believable and interesting than the crowd assembled by Christie in ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas‘. Hayer clearly takes her time developing each persona to full effect, which makes for a rather long mystery, almost 400 dense pages in my Kindle edition, but it is well worth the time, as they nearly leap off the page and bite. The only exception to these well developed characters is Edgar Mottisfont, who is not very distinctly painted. The best character, by far, is clearly Joseph, who is the perfect manipulator, the good uncle beloved by all, whose lack of tact results in this Christmas disaster. He is a perfect twisted Christmas spirit, spouting joy and peace, which only serves to incite hate and quarrels. Hemingway even points out, “There very likely wouldn’t have been a murder at all if it hadn’t been for . . . [Joseph] getting ideas about peace and goodwill, and assembling all these highly uncongenial people under the same roof at the same time” (247), and Mathilda comes even closer to the truth, when she defines Joseph as “a clumsy, well-meaning St Bernard puppy, dropped amongst a set of people who were not fond of dogs.”
Also quite remarkable is the character of Mathilde, the cousin, who is the only decent one of the lot, and much of this third person novel is seen through her trusted eyes. She is an isle of sanity, in a sea of anger and hatred. She is the ‘not quite beautiful’ woman, who dresses well, and is ultimately far more attractive, for what lies inside, than the immature vamp, Valerie, who is justifiably jealous. The lower class Maud is also interesting to watch, with her complete lack of engagement with the upper class that surrounds her, as she finds her own warmth and comfort in the middle of this frigid atmosphere. It is also extremely refreshing to deal with Inspector Hemingway, who is clearly up to the task, but no super sleuth. He is fallible enough to be sympathetic, yet smart enough to solve even the most difficult case – given sufficient time. He slowly plods through the novel, allowing forensics to do their stuff, and though he is no great psychological detective, like Poirot, it is finally the psychological makeup of the various members of the household which pushes him in the right direction. Unfortunately, the locked room is over analyzed for far too long before getting solved, and the final pages are the weakest. Hemingway has got his man firmly in his sights, a truly nasty Dickensian murderer, and he only needs to bust the locked room. Which means, if you have figured out the trick, this part will be a little tiresome.
This is another fairly straightforward mystery with no great literary ambitions, which depends on excellent plotting and characters for its charm. Yet, there is clearly an emphasis on the social changes that swept England between the wars, with the women decidedly modern, being just as obstinate, crude and sarcastic as their male counterparts. Other Golden Age authors also make this evident, but nowhere are the women more liberated than in Heyer’s mysteries. There is also a rolling dispute over a new generation’s lack of manners, with Joseph playing the role of understanding good uncle who attempts to bridges the generation gap, against Nat’s emphatic demand for respect, and Stephen’s casual and caustic bad manners designed to annoy all whom he encounters, simply for his own amusement. Stephen alone eventually emerges from this novel with a changed spirit, having discovered that his values have long been awry. There is also another recurring theme of ‘all the world’s a stage’ which examines the roles we play in life, and makes it quite clear that Heyer’s considers most people to be constantly posturing and acting out, rather than being in touch with their honest emotions. I could have done without the last romantic scene, which seems rather jarring, but this follows from Heyer’s habit of testing her irritating characters and either redeeming or discarding the final result, and Stephen is certainly redeemed!
In case you are curious, as I was (I definetly missed this one!), Gaius Servilius Casca was a close friend of Julius Caesar’s, who joined his brother in the assassination. Casca struck the first blow, attacking Caesar from behind, after Tillius Cimber had distracted the dictator by grabbing his toga. He is referred to by Shakespeare as “Envious Casca”!
So how do we rate this Golden Age Christmas classic. This is generally considered to be one of Heyer’s best, along with ‘A Blunt Instrument’ and ‘Death in The Stocks’, and it received rave reviews at the time it was first published. I fully agree that it is a masterpiece of conventional pre-war British country house mystery writing, and I am tempted to grant a full five stars. I much prefer Heyer’s Christmas to Chistie’s in ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ – which I recently reviewed – and it is quite clear that Heyer deliberately targeted this novel as her competition and was trying to beat Christie at her own game – and mainly succeeding! It also trumps Christie’s novel hands down as a Christmas mystery, since the Christie work is almost devoid of yuletide images, and ‘Envious Casca’ even has a fair good locked room, if you haven’t already encountered this device someplace else! Unfortunately, most true locked room fans will already have run across this now rather tired trick, which means you will know the basic solution before the crime is even committed – which is a definite minus! It is this dusty device which is the greatest flaw in an otherwise quite remarkable mystery, but this must knock down this great read by at least one star – as Heyer cannot claim the defence of originality, which, I believe, belongs to S S Van Dine – so we will have to leave it as a good solid four star read, that is well worth your time!
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