Saturday, November 20, 2010

Penhallow: Review

I have had Penhallow by Georgette Heyer on my TBR (and, in fact, my TBB--To Be Bought) List for ages. Ever since I first discovered her 1930s/40s mysteries about 10-15 years ago. Up until this year, Penhallow has proved very elusive-the library never had it and I never could find it on my used bookstore rounds. But Sourcebooks Landmark has recently re-issued Heyer's books in a compact, nicely covered series and when I saw Penhallow sitting on the shelf at my local Border's I snatched it right up.

I believe I know why this book has been so hard to find. It is a definite departure from Heyer's usual mystery-fare. It is dark and depressing, full of snide and sarcastic characters. How the Penhallow children managed to reach adulthood without murdering each other and their tyrannical father long ago is the real mystery here. Set at the Penhallow manor, we meet Adam Penhallow, an old man with a cruel streak who rules his family with an iron fist. Various members of the clan have left the hallowed halls of home, but Adam is determined to bring them all back and bring them to heel. He has had enough of his "artistic" son's debts, his youngest son's wasted years at college, and the other children who are not living up to the Penhallow name. But it isn't just that he wants them home...he sets out to re-fashion their lives so they must employ themselves in ways least suited to their nature. It really seems that the old man is out to make everyone as miserable as possible.

The novel is unusual in a number of ways--beyond the darker, more depressing tone. The first two-thirds of the novel is primarily character study. We are given a full run-down of every member of the Penhallow clan, including his son Jimmy, who was born on the wrong side of the blanket. And it's not a pretty picture. Penhallow's offspring are the most sarcastic, competitive, quarrelsome bunch you're likely to come across in fiction. The house is continually in an uproar and it seems unlikely that there is ever a moment's peace--even at night. What with Adam calling for the servants at all hours. We also have Heyer presenting us with the murder way in the last half of the book...handing us the culprit right up front so there isn't even any mystery to be solved. Her books usually begin with the murder and follow the usual who-dunnit procedures.

As a psychological study, this book is superb. A dysfunctional family at its worst. Heyer has every character dissected before us and plays each type to the hilt without quite going over the top. However, as a mystery--and particularly as an example of the type of mystery that Heyer fans will expect--it is less than stellar. This makes it very difficult for me to rate. It is well-written as all of Heyer's books are, but definitely takes me out of my comfort zone. As psychological fiction: 4 1/2 stars. As an example of the mystery genre: 2 1/2 stars. Final score: Three stars (a nice middle of the road rating.)

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