Penhallow (by Georgette Heyer)

I have read and re-read Georgette Heyer's historical novels with great enjoyment over the past thirty or more years. It's only in the past few years, however, that I've discovered and started collecting her detective novels. So I was delighted to spot one that I hadn't yet read on a second-hand stall at a local church.

'Penhallow' is about a family in the middle of the 20th century, who live in an ancestral home. Adam Penhallow is a rather manipulative autocrat with a large grown-up family, and a significant number of illegitimate offspring too. Indeed, we meet one of them - Jimmy - in the opening pages of the book.

Then we gradually get to know several of the legitimate Penhallow sons, none of whom much like their father. Yet they're all, in some way, tied to him - mainly for financial reasons. Only one of them is married, although another one is rather keen to marry his stepmother's maid, much to everyone's horror. The stepmother herself, Faith, is rather a wilting kind of woman; certainly not one of Heyer's usual strong-minded heroines.

I found the early chapters a bit heavy-going, with a great deal of description and background, and not a lot of action. Heyer is, as always, a master of characterisation and I did feel, by about the middle of the book, that I was getting to know some of the people in the book. However I didn't much like any of them, which made it hard to be very interested in the story. Nor is there any single 'main' character; scenes switch from one to another without any clear viewpoint.

I knew, from the blurb on the back, who was going to be bumped off. I was slightly surprised that the murder didn't take place until over half-way through the book. Then the scene was written in a most unusual way, with the reader shown exactly what happened, with full understanding of the motives given, as we see for a while into the character's mind.

I kept thinking there would be some twist - perhaps along the lines of Agatha Christie's classic 'Orient Express' mystery, but was disappointed. Indeed, since I knew what happened - and also knew various family secrets, which had likewise been revealed, there wasn't much mystery in the book at all. The detectives appeared only near the end, and didn't have much part to play at all.

The final paragraph in the book has the police inspector remarking that it was a very unsatisfactory case... and I would entirely agree. I found the whole book rather unsatisfactory, really, and that's very unusual with a Georgette Heyer. I thought it strange, and rather unsettling.

Not really recommended - some of her others are much better. If you'd like to try just one Heyer detective novel, I'd recommend either 'A Blunt Instrument', or 'The Unfinished Clue'.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 9th July 2009

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