Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca
What better way to relax during the hectic holiday season than to curl up on a favourite chair and read a Christmas murder mystery. In past Decembers, I have discussed Anne Perry’s A Christmas Season, Janet Evanovich’s Visions of Sugar Plums, Martha Grimes’s Jerusalem Inn, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. (Click here for a recommended list of Christmas mystery fiction).
At a time of year associated with customs and traditions, readers may particularly enjoy an English classic mystery such as Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca. The story begins on Christmas Eve with a traditional gathering of friends and family in a Tudor manor house. When the host (Nathaniel Herriard) fails to appear for dinner, his brother Joseph and nephew Stephen break down his locked bedroom door. Nathaniel is found dead on the floor with a knife wound in his back. It soon becomes apparent that a murderer lurks in the house within the closed circle of family and friends. As nephew Stephen points out, “One of us is an assassin” (268).
Georgette Heyer is best known for her meticulously researched Regency romances. Indeed she was a popular bestselling author throughout her lifetime and her 56 novels are still in demand today. When Heyer died in 1974, 51 of her titles were still in print and these titles have been translated into at least 10 languages (Hodge 2011, xiv). Her romantic comedies have been compared to those of Jane Austen, William Congreve, and Richard Sheridan (Hodge 2011 43, xiii). Although Heyer wrote 12 skilled mystery novels, her incredible success as an author of romantic comedies has overshadowed these works. All of these mysteries can be found in bookstores today (click here for a complete list) and all are highly readable.
Envious Casca is a clever light-hearted mystery, one that gently satirizes the foibles of the British upper-class. The Times (1974) described Heyer as “witty, amusing, charming, generous, delighting in the grand manner, a ‘lady of quality’ to quote the title of her last book.” Her personality shines through her writing. And Envious Casca is a novel that simply sparkles. In his New York Times’s review of the novel, Isaac Anderson (1941) wrote, “Rarely have we seen humor and mystery so perfectly blended as they are in this story.” Heyer is at her best when she satirizes shallow characters whose guiding principles are greed and selfishness. Mrs. Dean, for example, tries to ensnare a rich husband for Valerie, her daughter. Valerie is not surprised when “that redoubtable lady had at last succeeded in cornering Stephen, and was manoeuvring for position” (375).
Characters such as the butler Sturry and the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Hemingway are truly unforgettable. What links many of these individuals and provides a unifying motif for the novel is the theme of acting and the stage. Like Ngaio Marsh’s Final Curtain (see my blog), Envious Casca contains numerous references to dramatists, plays, and actors throughout the novel.
Although the murderer is not difficult to guess, the method of murder is. In Envious Casca, Heyer has created a truly intriguing locked-room murder. It is almost impossible to figure out how the murderer got in and out of the victim’s locked bedroom.
Heyer’s husband worked with his wife on the plot outlines of her mystery novels (Hodge 2011, 35). His training as a lawyer provides the legal expertise for many of these novels.
The festivities of the Christmas season provide not only a dramatic contrast to the horrible crime but also a convincing psychological impetus for the murder. As Detective Hemingway points out, “There very likely wouldn’t have been a murder at all if it hadn’t been for . . . [Joseph] getting ideas about peace and goodwill, and assembling all these highly uncongenial people under the same roof at the same time” (247). The pressures of the season together with the confined setting fuels resentments that may have merely smouldered at another time of the year.
Hodge calls Georgette Heyer “an immensely skilled and meticulous craftswoman,” a “stylist extraordinaire” (2011, x, 220). If you are looking for a witty mystery novel with an English setting, a locked-room plot, engaging characters, and an imposing manor house, you must read Envious Casca.
Anderson, Isaac. “Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer.” The New York Times. December 21, 1941.
Heyer, Georgette. Envious Casca. 1941. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2010.
Hodge, Jane Aiken. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2011.
“Georgette Heyer.” The Times. July 6, 1974.