Friday’s Forgotten Book: Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer

How I love Georgette Heyer! Her historical romances have an honored place on my bookshelves. I read some of them so often I can quote entire sections from memory. While Heyer wrote more than 40 romances, she only wrote about a dozen mysteries, although some of her romances have a mystery running through them, see The Reluctant Widow for instance. Eight of her pure mysteries were published before the beginning of World War Two during the Golden Age. There were three stand-alones, then four with Superintendent Hannasyde. Chief Inspector Hemingway appeared in one pre-war mystery, one released during the war, and two published during the early 1950s. The fourth stand-alone was also released during the war.

Her last mystery is the fourth Chief Inspector Hemingway, Detection Unlimited (Heineman, 1953). Set in the village of Thornden, which Heyer lovingly and meticulously describes, the town sounds positively idyllic. On a hot afternoon in June, everyone who is anyone in the village is at the Cedars, where the Haswells are hosting a tennis party. The sole absentee who might have been expected to attend is the newcomer Sampson Warrenby, an upstart who is gradually edging out the long-time village solicitor and who is doing his best to work his way into the rigid village social structure. He’s managed to annoy just about all of the locals so no one misses him. The party is slowly breaking up when Warrenby’s niece runs in to announce her uncle is dead. The death is clearly not natural, and the local police lose no time in calling in Scotland Yard.

Hemingway realizes quickly that the case is awash with suspects. There’s Warrenby’s niece, whom he treated like an unpaid servant. The resident solicitor was losing his practice through Warrenby’s conniving. The squire was introducing Warrenby to village society instead of crushing his pretentious ways, most unusual behavior. The mystery author was but one of many victims of Warrenby’s verbal jabs. A couple who recently moved into the area and who has declined to enter into the district social life has aroused everyone’s suspicions.  And on and on. The late lamented did not lack enemies. Moreover, most of the suspects insist on making cases against the other suspects, to which Hemingway is forced to listen.

The leisurely told story is as much about the village as it is about a mysterious death. Heyer portrays the village in such exquisite detail that a map, often seen in Golden Age mysteries, could easily be created from it. Hemingway and his assistant Inspector Harbottle have found housing in the village inn with which Hemingway is greatly pleased, the inn’s owner having, as he says, clearly not read the Rationing Orders. The culprit was gratifyingly hard to identify, and the arrest was a result of a last-minute surprise query from Hemingway. And many scenes are enlivened by the presence of a horde of rambunctious Pekinese dogs, raised by one of the residents who cannot control them. As always with a book by Heyer, highly recommended.

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