(House of Stratus 2001, originally published 1936)
This is one of my favourites of Georgette Heyer’s mystery novels, since the characters are delightful and the plot ingenious. Like many of her crime novels, however, she doesn’t entirely play fair with the reader, since the murderer’s motivation only comes about in the denouement and at second-hand.
At The Poplars, the Matthews family is shaken by the sudden death of Gregory Matthews, a strong-willed and argumentative man. While Gregory’s sister Harriet and sister-in-law Zoe (together with Zoe’s children Guy and Stella) are quite willing to accept Dr Fielding’s diagnosis of heart failure, Gertrude Lupton, Gregory’s majestic older sister, disputes this and demands a post-mortem and inquest. Accordingly, this is done, and Gregory is found to have been poisoned with nicotine; Scotland Yard – in the shape of Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway – are called in. Suspicion, naturally, falls on the members of the family, including Randall Matthews, Gregory’s nephew and heir, who lives in London and is cordially disliked by his relatives. Or could Henry Lupton, Gertrude’s husband, be the guilty party?
Hannasyde and Hemingway find their investigation stymied since they can’t find out how the poison was administered. It’s only when harmless – if eccentric – Aunt Harriet dies unexpectedly, that the solution becomes clearer.
I like the characters in this, since they’re well-drawn and their behaviour realistic; their relationships are often amusing, too. I liked the bit, for example, where Mr Rumbold, neighbour and friend, becomes the recipient of confidences from all the remaining occupants of The Poplars after Gregory’s murder is discovered. The story is ingenious, and Randall, particularly with his rude remarks, is very amusing.
“It is now obvious to us all that he has every objection,” said Randall. “You know, you had very much better withdraw, my dear aunt. I feel sure that Uncle Henry’s double life is going to be exposed. My own conviction is that he has been keeping a mistress for years.”
Giles could not forbear casting a quick look from Randall’s handsome, mocking face to Henry Lupton’s grey one. Superintendent Hannasyde remained immovable.
Mrs Lupton flushed. “You forget yourself, Randall. I am not going to stand here and see my husband insulted by your ill-bred notions of what is funny.”
“Oh, I wasn’t insulting him,” said Randall. “Why shouldn’t he have a mistress? I am inclined to think that in his place – as your spouse, my dear Aunt Gertrude – I should have several.”
The family’s solicitor, Giles Carrington, appears from Heyer’s earlier Death In The Stocks (which I also very much enjoy), and Hannasyde and Hemingway are recurring detectives.
Heyer’s contemporary-set crime novels are a bit on the snobbish side: for example, the family consider that Rose’s action in having given an interview to a newspaper (she’s one of the maids) is blatant impertinence and a sacking offence, but there’s a nice bit at the beginning where Mary, the other maid, is collecting shoes for cleaning and musing on the characters and behaviour of all the people she serves.
Entertaining and ingenious as a crime novel, Behold, Here’s Poison also sheds an interesting light on the lives of the upper-middle classes of the time.