John C Adams Reviews 'Envious Casca' by Georgette Heyer
Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer
(Hodder and Stoughton, 1941)
Conflict might have been raging across Europe and beyond when this book was originally published in 1941, but 'Envious Casca' captured the unchangingly tense nature of an English country house Christmas and offered readers something eternal that was unaffected by the war, which is not even mentioned.
Georgette Heyer wrote many historical fiction novels, especially focusing on the Regency period. However, she is also known for a dozen murder mysteries set in the contemporary England of her time.
The head of the Herriard family, and its richest member, Nathaniel is an old bachelor who lives at Lexham Manor. He's crabby and difficult, so his brother Joseph steps up to organise a family Christmas. Joseph and his wife Maud have no children, but the next generation consists of their nephew Stephen (the presumed heir) and his sister Paula (an actress), who are both invited to the country house party. Various other guests from outside the family widen the scope of the gathering, including Stephen's vacuous fiancee Valerie, her mother Mrs Dean, a cousin, a playwright Paula invites along and also Nat's long-term business partner. It's an odd grouping of precisely the kind that sparks narrative tension ahead of the anticipated murder. Almost everyone hates Nat with a passion, and there is plenty of arguing and bickering between everyone else, too.
Heavy snow falls and on Christmas Eve, as festivities get underway, the party is essentially housebound. That night, Nat is found stabbed in the back inside his locked bedroom. The local police are called out, and Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard and his sergeant arrive the next morning to take over the murder investigation.
The structuring of this novel was excellent. The location is essentially static, with the snow and then the murder corralling everyone together inside the country house, a favourite location of murder mysteries. The dynamism came from the unlikeable nature of just about everyone present. It never flagged even over three hundred pages. Before Nat's murder there is plenty of tension surrounding his difficult behaviour, his financial hold on the dependent younger generation and their grating sense of entitlement to his money. The characterisation unfolded naturally, and the location was vividly described. This was constructed as a highly traditional murder mystery, and I loved it.
Heyer's interest in historical fiction centres upon character, and she was unable to resist a dash of romance here too. The novel was a tad longer than many murder mysteries, in part because there was lots of focus on character in addition to the actual plot. I didn't mind this at all. Murder mystery is a wide and flexible genre, after all.
The clues surrounding the murder were well dispersed through the book in a casual fashion. I knew they were important because of the frequency with which they were mentioned, but just how remained unclear until the climax and revealing of the murderer. The crime was complex in the sense that Nat has been killed behind a locked door, something that causes Inspector Hemingway and his sidekick much annoyance until they solve the question eventually. Sometimes reading a murder mystery you get a clear feel for the culprit's identity. In this case I was able to narrow it down to two possibles, one of who turned out to be the murderer. The plot and details were clearly worked out but also very natural in how they unfolded.
I enjoyed every page, and it was a superb achievement.
Thank you so much for reading my second 'Mysteries on Monday' blog post. Please share your thoughts on this novel or any other mystery you've enjoyed and would recommend in the comments section below.