Twentieth Century Books

Envious Casca

Is there any more wonderful feeling in this world than the discovery of a new-to-you book by a much-loved, possibly even favourite author?

Envious Casca, by Georgette Heyer, turned out to be one such book for me. It’s been in my collection for years – every time I peered along the spines in search of a read, I assumed I’d read it. Didn’t remember it very well, or at all (which should have been my clue: I have quite a good memory for things I read ), but I’d probably only read it once. Certainly I had to dust it down when I pulled it off the shelf for what I thought was a re-read.

Turns out, I was wrong, and I was reading it for the first time. Yay for me!

Envious Casca is one of her crime novels featuring her Scotland Yard duo Hannasyde and Hemingway, although with Hannasyde now being a Superintendent, his role is limited to dispatching Inspector Hemingway with his sergeant.

What I like about Heyer’s crime novels is that they don’t focus on the detectives so much. They’re about the murder victim and his or her relationships. The police and their investigation, not so much, to the point where I’m not sure if we’re ever told their first names. Hemingway makes a study of Psychology, but generally their private lives are just that: private. They turn up, generally speaking, later n in the story, when the local lot decide they’re too close to the family involved.

Envious Casca takes place at Christmas-time, when Uncle Joe decides, in his bumbling, genial way, that the best way for troubled familial waters to be soothed is to invite the younger generation (consisting of niece Paula, nephew Stephen, and cousin Mathilda) for Christmas. The fact that it’s not his house (he and wife Maud live with his cantankerous bachelor brother Nathaniel) and the causes of family-arguments (a gold-digging fiancée and an impoverished “modern” playwright in need of a backer) come too doesn’t dampen his hope for a joyous party. After a humdinger of an argument between Nathaniel and Paula about the playwright (he’d just read his play – about a fallen woman, a role which respectably-born Paula wishes to play) and which drags Stephen in, leading to Nathaniel threatening to cut the both of them out of his will, Christmas Eve ends with Nathaniel being found in his room, stabbed in the back. The doors and windows were locked from the inside.

Who, and how?

Hemingway is gloomy from the outset, given the cast of plenty who’d argued with the deceased, and no reasonable way of the murder having happened, with all those locked doors and windows.

Unlike a lot of modern murder mysteries, this is not a thriller with the detectives also under threat from the murderer, or with some variety of conspiracy designed to bring down the Establishment. Neither the chapters nor the sentences are short and snappy, fast-paced to get your heart racing as you speed through the large writing on the pages. This is gentler, from the Golden Age of detective fiction, first published in 1941. It is simply the murder of a wealthy bachelor, with no apparent method but plenty of suspects.

What I really like about Heyer is the characters, who are all wonderfully drawn, consistent, and distinctive, even with occasional familial similarities. I like that the detectives don’t have a back-story: they’re there to investigate, not really be the story, although it is nice to see Hemingway climb through the ranks throughout her crime-novels.

I haven’t met a Heyer novel I hate. There are some I don’t adore as much as others, but even those are amusing, with excellently written characters and tightly plotted stories. With the historical ones, the detail is second to none – clothing and fashions, the language and slang – and if you didn’t know otherwise, you might consider her a contemporary of Austen. I would love to have seen her library and reference books.

I was also quite delighted to reach the end and discover I’d got it right for once. I don’t normally try to work out who-dun-it, but I usually take an irrational dislike to someone and hope it was he or she. I’m rarely right. Not so this time, when I picked the killer and the method. Quite satisfying, that.

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