Penhallow by Georgette Heyer

Penhallow cover

This is not a good book, but it’s fascinating in its terribleness. As a straight novel, it’s not awful, but as a mystery it fails on every level, to the point where it becomes almost a manual on how mysteries should not be written. I read in another review that Heyer wrote this book as a “contract breaker” with her publisher, and it certainly makes sense – when you start reading the book as it was written (as a giant literary middle finger to Heyer’s publishers) it becomes almost fun to see how she goes to great lengths to write this boring, drawn-out, not-mysterious mystery.

It’s your basic murder-mystery setup: elderly patriarch (Penhallow) rules his family with an iron fist and is hated by all, and every member of his family has secrets and reasons for wanting him dead. When he dies (of course), suspicion lands on every character.

In another writer’s hands (or rather, a writer who gave two shits whether people liked the book) this story would have gone differently. The patriarch would have been found dead near the beginning of the story, and as his death was investigated, the family member’s various secrets would continue to come to light in one twist after another, with the police officer finally discovering the one crucial clue that pointed to the murderer. But because Heyer, like the majestic honey badger, simply does not give a fuck, the story goes backwards. Penhallow doesn’t die until page 292, and Heyer spends the pre-murder pages telling us exactly what each character’s Deep Dark Secret or Murderous Motive is. It still has the chance to be a fascinating character study, since the murder of Penhallow forces the various family members to confront each other and try to divert suspicion from themselves while they try to figure out who killed Penhallow…except the reader knows who did it. Heyer shows us the scene where the murderer poisons Penhallow, and then goes on with her story. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.

The whole story was like watching a glorious, perfectly choreographed trainwreck, but no trainwreck is interesting after 457 pages. But then again, Heyer had a point to make.

Two stars for the story itself, five stars for sheer balls-out, unrepentant spitting on mystery conventions, and altogether much more entertaining than Heyer ever intended it to be.

Verdict: two out of five stars

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