Hated for his cruel and vicious nature, ruling his family with an iron hand from his sickbed, tyrannical patriarch Adam Penhallow is found murdered the day before his birthday. His entire family had assembled for his birthday celebration, and every one of them had the ways and means to commit the crime. As accusations and suspicion turn in one direction and then another, the claws and backstabbing come out, and no one is exempt from the coming implosion.
"Georgette Heyer is second to none in her ability to make detective stories entertaining." (The Sunday Times) "Sharp, clear and witty." (The New Yorker) "Rarely have we seen humour and mystery so perfectly blended." (The New York Times)
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If you love Georgette Heyer for her cheerfully witty repartee and nice cosy plots, don't expect either of those here. If you like edgy, psychological melodrama and don't mind outmoded social conventions and politically incorrect attitudes, you may find this an interesting take on how just about every variety of the emotionally scarred, pushed to the limit, might have reacted "back in the day". Most of the conflict has to do with what is and isn't acceptable behavior for members of various social classes. (Keep in mind that this was written in the early 1940s: we might hope that no one is outraged today when the son of a wealthy family wants to marry one of the maids, but does anyone honestly believe that we have come that far?) "What evil lurks in the hearts of men?" The immortal question of the roughly contemporaneous radio drama "The Shadow" expresses the theme, though we would add, "and from whence cometh that evil?"
Penhallow is not so much a mystery as a novel about a dysfunctional family on a rapid slide into disaster. The nasty tone is set by the opening words: "Jimmy the Bastard", repeated throughout as though it was his given name. The puzzle for the reader to solve is which of the many thoroughly detestable suspects we would most like to see hang for the inevitable murder (which doesn't take place until two-thirds of the way in), and who we would most enjoy seeing get away with it.
Penhallow is the tyrannical patriarch of a huge brood of vipers. If any character ever needed killing, this is he. Almost every other character has good reason to do him in, but while any one of them might well be capable of murder, no one seems quite ready to step in to do the deed. Much of the book consists of unpleasant exchanges between ever-revolving combinations from among Penhallow, his numerous offspring and in-laws, servants, and wife number two. Some of the nastiness is rather delicious, but enough is enough and too much quickly becomes tedious. It would have been better if Heyer had dropped a few of the siblings and brought the delightful sister Charmaine home earlier.
I have long been a great fan of Georgette Heyer, ever since my 8th grade English teacher recommended The Grand Sophy. The historical romances are a pleasant tidbit for my dedicated Jane Austen tastes, but what my cosy side truly adores is her mysteries. When Audible began adding them, I jumped on the chance to re-visit Inspectors Hannasyde and Hemmingway, and resolved to listen my way through the entire Heyer list. For fans of the English country house genre, the mysteries hold up well as a rule, but this a major departure from Heyer's other work. I am ambivalent about my ratings: the writing is good, if long-winded; some of the characters are nicely developed, while others are a bit thin. I can't say I really enjoyed the first half or more and I was leaning towards one or two stars -- everyone is just so completely unpleasant! Once I got to the murder, I was glad to have stuck with it. The ending is, well, avoiding spoilers, let's just say the ending is ..... different. The narration is very good -- except for a few sections of exposition that lapse into a soft, sleepy lull that doesn't fit in with the rest of the book.
I doubt if I'll ever listen to this again. I didn't hate it, but I was glad when it was over. Whew!