Daily Archives: August 19, 2021

First World Problems: Heyer style

And, this is the second review that has been sitting draft forever – it was originally published January 24, 2015.

Death in the StocksDeath in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer
Series: Inspectors Hannasyde & Hemingway #1
Publication Date: July 1, 1935
Pages: 262
Genre: mystery

In the dead of the night, a man in an evening dress is found murdered, locked in the stocks on the village green. Unfortunately for Superintendent Hannasyde, the deceased is Andrew Vereker, a man hated by nearly everyone, especially his odd and unhelpful family members. The Verekers are as eccentric as they are corrupt, and it will take all Hannasyde's skill at detection to determine who's telling the truth, and who is pointing him in the wrong direction. The question is: who in this family is clever enough to get away with murder?

Heyer is better known for her romances than her mysteries, and for good reason, honestly. This was a reasonably entertaining mystery, but was really nothing special. It is very much a class-based mystery, as are many of the golden age mysteries.

The book begins with the grisly discovery of a body in the stocks in the village of Ashleigh Green – Arnold Vereker has been stabbed. Arnold is the wealthy eldest brother of the Vereker family, and the prime suspects are his two siblings: the smashing Antonia, who is engaged to Rudolph, and employee of Arnold’s and not a particularly suitable partner for Antonia, and Kenneth, the artistic freeloader who is engaged to the beautiful and expensive Violet. It’s obvious that Arnold has been murdered for his money. The question is which of the suspects, all of whom loathed Arnold, is the guilty party.

I get the sense that Heyer was a bit of a snob, mostly from reading biographical stuff about her, but also from her books. This mystery – along with the one other mystery I’ve read of hers – relies heavily on the “Bright Young Thing” trope that is common in golden age mysteries. The BYT is a young, generally extremely attractive, female character who is a bit bohemian, who always ends up marrying someone whom she will enliven, at the same time that he will steady her. She is sort of a precursor to the MPDG (manic pixie dream girl) character trope that we’ve seen more recently.

The BYT is always desirable, and is the “heroine” of the piece. She is usually attached to someone who is not good for her – as Tony was at the beginning of this story. Giles is the perfect foil for the BYT – he is steady, but not staid, and head-over-heels for the girl. He is a Mr. Knightley, as opposed to a Mr. Wickham or a Mr. Willoughby. Not interesting enough to carry the book on his own, he’s the classic nice guy who deserves to win the hand of the cool girl. As soon as Giles ends up in the same room with her, we KNOW that he is the guy for Tony.

Violet, on the other hand, is NOT a BYT. First of all, she’s not that bright. And she’s a gold-digger – she is not sufficiently light-hearted or bohemian. It isn’t Violet’s lower class roots, but her actual lack of class, that excludes her. Being a BYT wasn’t actually dependent on having money – it was all about attitude. One could sponge off others, but not be a gold-digger, as long as one was convincingly able to maintain the fiction that money was unimportant. I know this makes no sense, but this is the sense I make of the trope after reading tons of these books.

Ultimately, the relationship with money in books of this time period can be really conflicted (as it was for Heyer herself!). Having money is perceived as admirable, but making money is grubby and greedy. So, Tony & Kenneth could live off of Arnold’s labor, and still feel his superior because, you know, they didn’t care about money. Even though the money that allows them to eat comes directly from him. It’s schizophrenic at best, hypocritical at worst.

Unfortunately, this trope has not worn well in the modern era of rising inequality. I found Kenneth deplorable, and Tony annoying. I wanted them both to get off their underwhelming, overindulged asses and do something – anything – useful. Arnold was awful, but he was no more awful than the people around him. He might have even been less awful. At least he was capable of feeding himself.

Tying this back to Heyer, she was involved in a tremendous conflict with Inland Revenue during her lifetime. She wrote because it paid the bills, but was constantly fighting about taxes, and at one point set up a LLC to try to lessen her tax burden, then basically got caught treating the LLC like it was her bank account, and the tax authorities got pissed and told she owed a bunch of money. Which I believe she ultimately paid, but she was not happy about it. She, herself, was more like Arthur (probably) than like either Violet or Antonia/Kenneth, but I think that she clearly sympathized with “the gentry” and the “leisured class.”

Over all, this is a reasonably enjoyable golden age mystery, although I never find Heyer’s mysteries as well-plotted as Christie’s or as enjoyable and quirky as Sayers. She’s definitely a second tier mystery novelist. And all of the characters could have used a swift kick in the ass.

The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

This is a very old review that was originally published on a different blog all the way back on October 26, 2014. It’s been sitting my draft reviews since I shut that blog down and copied it over. I decided that it was time to empty the draft folder of all of the really old stuff. There are only a couple that I decided to keep and publish here. This is one of them.

Title: The Mistress of Mellyn
Author: Victoria Holt
Published in 1960

Summary from Goodreads: Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned…But what bout its master–Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh’s new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her.

TreMellyn’s young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl’s father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfimiliar sensations and turmoil–even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha’s life.

Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets–as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love–and the freedom to find a golden promise forever…

There is basically a straight line from Jane Eyre to Rebecca by du Maurier, to Victoria Holt.

When I was just a girl, it was the 1970’s, a time of great change. The first wave of feminism – concerned with legal/structural barriers to inequality like suffrage and property rights – had largely ended, at least in the Western world, and the second-wave had begun. The second wave of feminism broadened the debate to other barriers to gender equality: sexuality, family, reproductive rights, education and the workplace.

I bring this up for a reason. And that reason is that Victoria Holt’s gothic romances were huge in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the tropes which are present in those books are oddly anti-feminist. The Mistress of Mellyn, her first gothic romance, was published in 1960. In addition to the Mistress of Mellyn, I’ve also recently read The Bride of Pendorric (1963), The Shivering Sands (1969), and The Pride of the Peacock (1976). She published a total of 32 of these stand-alone gothics, with 18 of them being published in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Do I think that Eleanor Hibbert, who wrote under the name Victoria Holt, was anti-feminist? No, absolutely not. She was an incredibly prolific writer who wrote under 8 separate pen names, including her most well-known: Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr.

But with her Victoria Holt gothics, she tapped into something. She was not the only writer of gothic romance publishing during this time period. Other well-known writers include Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Barbara Michaels, and Mary Stewart.

A few observations about gothic romance.

1. The covers were remarkably similar, typically featuring a castle or a manor of some sort, with a young woman running from it. Some examples:

2. The setting is of critical importance: it is typically a place that is both exotic but remains well-trod ground. Cornwall – the Cornwall of du Maurier and Rebecca – is a common setting, as are Yorkshire moors, which is familiar to readers through Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The settings have a darkness to them. The setting is historical, and the story typically conforms to well-established gender norms of the historical time period.

3. The main character is always a young woman of small means and dependence, similar to the unnamed narrator in Rebecca. She is often a governess, or a companion to a much wealthier woman. Typically youthful, her most significant characteristic is her powerlessness. She is generally not particularly beautiful – beauty being a characteristic that affords a woman with power – nor wealthy. She can be a widow or a virgin, but she is never sexually autonomous, and she never has children.

4. The male lead is a man of stature. Sometimes he is a widower, the father of a child that she has been hired to educate. He is always a man of property and is always above her station. He is aspirational, but she does not aspire to him, always acknowledging to herself that, while she has fallen in love with him, she cannot have him.

5. And it is the property that is, generally, the key to the story, as evidenced by the covers and the titles. These books are an offshoot of the literature of the English Country House. As Jane Eyre was focused around Thornfield Hall and Rebecca had Manderley, a great manor house is the foundation upon which these books are built.

6. Finally, these books often have a female villain, which is the entire point of this discussion.

The suspense in these books is built around the young woman coming to the manor house and falling in love with the eligible lord of the manor. Often there is a mystery associated with the man, or the house. A former wife who has disappeared, or a suggestion of murder, that places the heroine in physical danger. We are always meant to believe that it is the man who is the source of the danger.

However, that is typically not the case. There is confusion about the source of the danger, and the reason for that confusion is: the villain is a woman who is committing the villainy because of some ambitions either toward the master, or, more commonly, the house itself.

This is why I titled this post the corrosive effect of female ambition. Because in these books – at least the ones I have read recently – female ambition isn’t merely unwomanly, it is positively corruptive. It causes the woman who experiences it to devolve into a deranged murderess.

The Mistress of Mellyn is a case in point (and here, spoilers will abound). Our heroine is a Martha Leigh, a young woman who comes to Mount Mellyn as governess to Alvean TreMellyn, putative daughter of Connan TreMellyn (although we find out early on in the story that Alvean is actually the daughter of Alice’s lover, the neighbor). Connan himself is a widower, his deceased wife Alice having died in a railroad accident on the very night that she left him for his neighbor, her body so badly burned that it could only be identified by the locket she wore.

Drama ensues, and the reader begins to believe that there is something bizarre going on with the manor house. There are ghostly sightings, and a mute sprite of a child who seems to be terribly frightened for reasons which are unclear. The home itself is full of nooks and crannies and secret chambers, along with peeps that are cleverly hidden in murals so that the individuals in one room won’t know that they are being watched from another room.

As in many of these books, it turns out that the villainess is a woman: the sister of the neighboring man whom Alice was thought to have run away with and who died in the railroad accident. When Martha marries Connan, she becomes the target of the murderer, and is lured into a secret chamber, where she will be left to die, as was Alice so many years prior. The murderess is foiled by the child that Martha has befriended.

But, here is the thing. Celestine Nansellick isn’t actually interested in Connan TreMellyn. This isn’t a story of female rejection which ends with the rejected removing the victorious competition from the picture. This is all about the house – Celestine Nansellick covets Mount Mellyn, not Connan TreMellyn, and Martha gets in the way of those ambitions by marrying Connan and potentially producing legitimate heirs which will disinherit Alvean who is not Connan’s child. She wants the house, not the guy.

This is the same motive behind the murder attempt in Pride of the Peacock (deranged female housekeeper who wanted the aspirational hero to marry her daughter) and The Shivering Sands (deranged daughter of the housekeeper who believed herself to be the illegitimate child of the heir of the estate). In each of these books, the villain is a mirror image of the heroine, with one distortion – unlike the heroine, who is not ambitious and who accepts her place, the villain is prepared to dogfight her way out of subservience. She cannot marry her way out – unlike the heroine – but she can manipulate and maneuver and even murder her way out. And it is her very refusal to accept her place that marks her as unworthy of elevation.

This is completely retrograde, right? This book is published at the exact same time that women are becoming increasingly independent, able to control their own fertility, plan their families, get the same education as men, qualify for the same jobs, and yet we have a wildly popular type of book in which the heroines accept their lack of equality, and the villains reject it. And the women who reject this lack of independence and autonomy become criminals – murderesses.

Halloween Bingo: Diverse Voices

It’s important to me to make an effort to include diverse voices in my reading. Because I read so much older fiction, this can sometimes take extra effort – publishing has been largely under the control of the white establishment, and while writers of color have made significant inroads, ensuring that I experience diverse perspectives still takes some attention.

This is why there are, actually, two ways to encourage the bingo players to look for diversity in their reading – the Diverse Voices square and the Amplification spell card, which allows any player to substitute in a book written by an author from a historically marginalized group to fill any square on their card.

Over the years, I’ve had Diverse Voices on my card several times. For people who are interested in genre fiction written by authors of color, the following is a list of possibilities:

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I read this one for In the Dark, Dark Woods, using the Amplification Spell. In addition to having a glorious cover, it was an interesting Lovecraftian gothic tale. It was also everywhere last year, and was Moreno-Garcia’s breakout book.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. Victor Lavalle is an author I am not familiar with and, interestingly, this novella also had Lovecraftian themes, as a retelling of the Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook. After I read the novella, I found and read the source material. I am not a Lovecraft fan, and can say unequivocally that, in my opinion, Lavalle’s rendering blew the doors off the original. Sorry not sorry.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke. I recently got into Attica Locke – a black author who is also an accomplished screenwriter. She is best known for her Highway 59 series, featuring Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger. This was her first novel, and was really enjoyable – an interesting environmental mystery. I have read everything she has published, and am waiting, excitedly, for her next Highway 59 novel. Word is that the series may be adapted for television.

Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older. Somewhat oddly, there isn’t nearly as much urban fantasy set in New York as there is in London. Nonetheless, this intriguing offering about an “inbetweener,” a partially resurrected from a life he doesn’t remember, is worth reading. There are two other books in the series. So many books, so little time.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. This was such a fun read – a magical farce set in Regency England. I really need to reread it, and then get my hands on the second book in the series.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. I remember that I read this one, but it must have been after I blacked out my card, because I can’t find it in my records. Anyway, this is a piece of urban fantasy written by a Native American author, with Native American mythology at the center. Really good.

This year, I’m planning to read at least a couple from this list:

  • The Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark. I have this on hold at my library and I am hopeful that it will be available before Halloween. If I don’t get to read it this year, I’m sure I’ll be able to get my hands on it next year.
  • Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse. Also on hold, although I may actually buy this one since I bought the first in the series.
  • Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. Alternate history set during the Civil War with a young black woman as protagonist taking out zombies with her weaponry? Yes. Right now.
  • Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. This has been on my TBR for at least a decade. I have a paperback copy stuffed in a bookshelf somewhere.
  • The Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley. This is a YA thriller that takes place in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, at Lake Superior State University.
  • Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby. I recently read S.A. Cosby’s second book, Razorblade Tears, and was riveted by his characters. I’ve heard good things about this one, too.