Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Musings: Why Shoot a Butler?

Why shoot a butler? cover
Georgette Heyer's Why Shoot a Butler? is different from most of the other Heyer mysteries I've read because it does not feature either Inspector Hemingway or Inspector Hannasyde.  This is not a huge loss because Heyer is one of those mystery authors for whom the detective is not the most interesting or important character.  Both inspectors are pretty forgettable and indistinguishable (strange for someone who is so sharp on characterization), and she focuses much more on the murder victim's family and friends and their dynamics.

In this outing, Mr. Frank Amberley, one of those fashionably bored and witty society types that Heyer writes so well, comes across a beautiful woman on the side of a road one night.  She's standing next to a car with a dead man in it (the butler from the title) and she's holding a gun, but she insists she did not commit the murder.  Amberley believes her, and when he tells the police about the murder, he does not mention seeing her.  He has very little faith in the police solving the murder correctly, and he comes to realize that the murder is just one part of a much larger puzzle.  As he delves deeper into the mystery, his lovely and mysterious friend seems more and more unwilling to trust him.  But as more people turn up dead, Amberley realizes it's essential to solve this mystery as quickly as possible.

I do love Georgette Heyer, as those who have read this blog for some time must know.  But she can be so snobby.  In nearly all her books, the police are bumbling idiots (at least until Scotland Yard is invited in) and no one ever trusts them to do good work.  That's certainly true in this novel, in which the police are completely in over their heads and are mocked at nearly every turn by the sophisticated barrister Frank Amberley.  I couldn't help but feel sorry for them, and I now can't help but wonder how bad England's rural police force must have been in the 1930s to be so scathingly represented.

I do think, though, Heyer was much kinder to her own sex in this book.  The lovely and mysterious young woman, Shirley Brown, is self-sufficient, self-reliant and completely unwilling to trust Frank right at the start just because he is handsome and has broad shoulders.  Nope, he has to earn her trust and actually be nice to her, which is more than can be said for many of the romantic leading men in Heyer's mystery novels.

What I like most about Heyer's mysteries is just how witty she is.  Just think of the context.  We're post-WWI, so the aristocratic population has been decimated.  They have also lost most of their political clout, and perhaps most of the money they inherited from their American title-hunting ancestors.  They really are just hanging by that thread of social mores, in which people defer to and respect them just because of their names and mannerisms and the fact that the men were members of clubs and went to public school.  I think that's where so much of the tension comes out.  In Why Shoot a Butler?, particularly, there is an ever-present class conflict because, well, someone shot a long-standing retainer with a pretty unblemished reputation.  It's fascinating to see the class interplay.  And Heyer really plays up the indolence of the upper crust, too, making Amberley's cousin very dim, his aunt quite lazy (on the surface, at least), and his uncle a complete curmudgeon.  This book is an engrossing and interesting mystery, but it's also a great social commentary on the class system of the day.

The only thing that kept this book from being a complete success, in my opinion, was the fact that readers really had no idea what was going on.  There was so much information Frank had that we didn't.  I think generally, this is something that Heyer does in her novels.  It results in a fairly tiresome summary of about 18 pages at the end, in which Amberley has to reveal exactly how he knew everything (though there were still moments of pure omniscience that seemed far-fetched).  I would have preferred it if the readers had access to all those clues, too, though then I guess we'd know right at the start what was going on, much like Amberley did.

But a Heyer read is nearly always a good read, in my opinion!  And I enjoyed this one enough to finish it in the span of a few hours, curled up on the couch.


  1. Anonymous11/08/2011

    I have this one but haven't read it yet. I have to admit I tried reading one of her mysteries earlier in the year and couldn't finish it so was planning to read one of her Regency books. But I'm still planning to read this one just because the title is so brilliant.

  2. What would you suggest as a first, representative sort of Heyer?

  3. I am glad that you found another Heyer to enjoy! It does seem as if she has some ideas and proclivities in her writing that she always sticks to, and I guess that in this book she shed some of those, which must have made it a pretty exciting read for you. I still haven't tried any of her books, though when they were on sale, I stocked up on quite a few of them. It might be time to just pick one out of the bunch and get started! Very perceptive and involving review today, Aarti. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one!

  4. Anonymous11/08/2011

    I am pretty sure I own this one. I haven't read a Heyer mystery yet so I am excited to do so!

  5. I tried to read Georgette Heyer once, but she wasn't really calling to me at the time. I need to try again one day!

  6. I've never read anything by Georgette Heyer, but I love the title of this one! Not sure I can cope with one of those exposition-heavy, look how very clever I am' endings, though.

  7. chasingbawa- Haha, it really is a great title! But I can see why you wouldn't be really into her mysteries. They are a very different feel than her historicals. Though still quite witty, they are generally less frothy and light.

    Reading Rambo - Ooh, I think my favorites would be Black Sheep, Cotillion or The Talisman Ring.

    Zibilee - I'm so glad you have a few of them. Let me know when you give her a try :-)

    Lola - Ooh, I can't wait to see your reviews of them when you start.

    Kelly - I am not sure if you'd love Heyer, but I think you would like some of her books, at least.

    Tracy - I know, those endings are so annoying in mysteries! Just so clunky.

  8. I will stick to the regency Heyer books instead :)

  9. I've heard lots about Heyer's regencies, but not much about her mysteries... the first Heyer I actually purchased was one of her mystery novels, and I picked it up because I recognized her name. I have yet to read it (or any other Heyer for that matter)! I am sure that once I start with her, I'll want to read everything she wrote...

  10. I haven't read this one and it does sound intriguing. I get so swept away by the Regency books that I have neglected her murder mysteries.

  11. Anonymous11/09/2011

    I haven't read any of her mysteries yet. Soon.

  12. Still haven't read any of Georgette Heyer's mysteries, although I'm very fond of the few Regency romances I've read so far. I feel like the mysteries won't be as good! I feel like I'll open them expecting them to be just as comforting and snuggly as the romances, and be disappointed.

    P.S. You should read Strong Poison.

  13. This is the only mystery that I have read by Heyer and I liked it but didn't love it! I wasn't all that inspired to try anymore but seeing you mention that this one is different to her others then maybe I should try another one.

  14. Just mentioned on another blog how I need to try this author soon. I like the reviews I've read.


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