Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Shoot a Butler?

Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) is Georgette Heyer's second mystery novel. It is every bit as fun as her first one, and shows, I think, that Heyer is gaining confidence in the genre. This one rings a little truer than the first. There are still plenty of coincidences, but they are happy ones. One of Heyer's great gifts are her characters and the humorous way she uses character.

As the title would indicate, the initial and most pressing mystery is why would anyone want to shoot a butler? For that is what has happened. Frank Amberley, barrister, is on his way to visit relatives and, having been given vague instructions about a "short-cut" by his cousin, finds himself on a lonely stretch of road with a stopped car and a mysterious young woman. The woman is peering into the car and Amberley soon discovers part of the reason why she is white-faced. The man behind the wheel is dead. Amberley takes in the situation and soon decides that the young woman has not committed the crime (but why is she so scared?) and reports the man, the car and the shooting (but not the woman) to the authorities asap.

It is soon revealed that the man behind the wheel was the butler to The Fountains, a local stately home. The police are puzzled...why would anyone want to kill a butler? And why was he out there on that bit of road in the first place? Heyer soon provides us with all sorts of mysterious goings-on--from shifty-eyed valets to missing documents to poachers and possible blackmail. Amberley is certain that Miss Shirley Brown (the damsel in distress at the beginning) knows more than she's saying and that if she'd only trust him he'd soon get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately it takes two more deaths and a final attempted murder before he and the police can bring the crime home to the villain.

This is a lovely period mystery. I love Frank Amberley's aunt, Lady Matthews, who seems awfully vague and fluffy, but like so many of her sort sees and knows more than anyone thinks. And then when she reveals a penetrating bit of knowledge everyone is so surprised. They should know better. Her conversation reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey's mother, who is also rather circuitous in her speech, but recognizes so much that others miss. Here's a bit of an exchange between Sir Humphrey (Frank's uncle) and Lady Matthews about the death of the butler:

SH: You must not allow this to worry you, Marion.
LM: No, my dear, why should I? Very disagreeable for poor Frank though. I hope we haven't got a gang of criminals near us. Terrible if one's own chauffeur turned out to be the leader of a sinister organization.
SH: Ludlow? My love, we have had Ludlow in our employment for over ten years! What in the world makes you suppose that he can have anything to do with this shocking affair?
LM: I'm sure he hasn't. I find that nothing of that nature every really happens to one. But in this book--she dived her hand among the sofa-cushions and produced a novel in a lurid jacket--it was the chauffeur. So unnerving.
SH: [reading the cover] The Stalking Death. My dear, surely this doesn't entertain you?
LM: Not very much. The nice man turned out to be a villain after all. I think that's so unfair when one has become quite fond of him.

Not an incredibly mystifying crime (I recognized the culprit early on), but a lot of fun and great for those who like the vintage mystery. Four stars for terrific writing and characters and just a general fondness for Georgette Heyer's work.

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