All Things Georgette

1932 – Footsteps in the Dark – the first detective-thriller

A move to the country

In April 1930 Georgette Heyer had returned to England from Macedonia where her husband, Ronald Rougier, had been working as a mining engineer in the lead mines near the Bulgarian border. It cannot have been an altogether easy transition, as they had no home of their own in England and jobs for mining engineers were not easy to find once back in Britain. They had returned home in part because Georgette had decided that they should try for a baby which, for her atleast, meant no more overseas postings. As she explained to her friend Carola Oman, if she was going to have a baby then she wanted to have it in England. Once home, the Rougiers lived at 62 Stanhope Gardens for some months and Ronald invested in a partnership in a gas, light and coke company in the Horseferry Road. Unfortunately, the investment did not reap the hoped-for rewards and by October they had decided to leave London and move to the country. It was there that she would write her first detective-thriller, Footsteps in the Dark.

A penchant for privacy

Perhaps it was her penchant for privacy that made the idea of country living so appealing to Georgette. Her father’s death in 1925 had been a cataclysmic event in her life and her overwhelming grief had kept her from writing for over two years. It was during her time in Tanganyika that she had healed. Isolated from the world back home and from the countless reminders of her loss, living a grass hut in a remote compound, the only expatriate woman for 150 miles, she had begun writing again. And then in Macedonia she had lived in a small medieval village, happy to write without the interruption of a busy social life or chatty neighburs (she didn’t speak the language). As an author, she was used to isolation, but even outside of her writing life, Georgette did not seek the bright lights and and busy social whirl of London. By April 1931, Georgette and Ronald had decided to move to Sussex.

A map showing Horsham and the surrounding villages and hamlets where Georgette Heyer lived and set some of her novels.

A new home in Sussex

Georgette had happy memories of childhood holidays spent in Sussex visiting her grandparents and this may have been a factor in their choosing Sussex as the county in which to find their new home. She had finished writing her remarkable medieval novel, The Conqueror, in 1930 and by the time of its publication in March 1931 she and Ronald had settled on Horsham as the place for Ronald’s new business venture. He had bought a lease for the Russell Hillsdon sports store at Number 9 the Bishopric in the centre of Horsham – at that time a large market town. There he would restring tennis racquets, mend guns and assist members of the local golf club (Ronald also joined Mannings Heath Golf Club), while Georgette wrote her books and helped to support them financially. The Rougiers left for Sussex on the last day of April 1931 without knowing quite where they were going to live. In September, Georgette wrote to her agent, Leonard Moore, from Swan Ken – a house in Broadbridge Heath about two miles west of Horsham. She wrote to tell him that she was writing a serial story and that she hoped he would find a publisher for it:

‘Well, what price my serial story? I may as well tell you (since I feel sure no one else will) that it’s developing into a remarkably fine effort. I haven’t the smallest hope that any editor will take it, but Gosh, if one did how opportune it would be!

Georgette Heyer to L.P. Moore, 4 September 1931
Ronald’s shop at Number 9 the Bishopric, Horsham is now a menswear store.


Footsteps in the Dark was the intended serial but in the end the story would be published as a novel. Longmans, who had published Heyer’s contemporary fiction since Helen in 1928, offered Georgette an advance of £200. She signed the contract on 13 November for, as she ecstatically told Moore:

We are expecting an addition to the family in February – to my almost insane rapture…This, you see, accounts for my frenzied energy in writing this blasted thriler. I MUST HAVE MONEY. Like that. All in capitals. I pray to god to soften the hearts of an editor unbusinesslike enough to pay me an extortionate sum for the privilege of producing the thriller.

Georgette Heyer to L.P. Moore, letter, 4 September 1931.

Hugely popular

The detective-thriller had become hugely popular by the 1920s and 30s, thanks largely to the writings of Edgar Wallace, whose novels, including The Four Just Men, The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder and The Ringer, sold in millions. Georgette’s first ‘thriller’ Footsteps in the Dark, was inspired by the ghostly footsteps which she and Ronald had sometimes heard in their house in Kratovo in Macedonia. The novel was typical of the genre and, as a first attempt at a murder mystery and a kind of modern Gothic novel, Footsteps in the Dark is a fair effort that, ninety years later, remains readable. It is a lightweight story set in an old manor house in the English countryside not too far from London. The house has been inherited by a brother, Peter, and his two sisters, Margaret and Celia, and they, along with Celia’s husband, Charles, and their scatty older aunt (a forerunner of some of Heyer’s later scatty but intelligent older women), have taken up residence there. They are soon beset by ghostly noises, strange footsteps, a skeleton, a drug-crazed French artist, an eclectic set of neighbours, a mysterious stranger, a bumbling local policeman and murder. The dialogue is very 1930’s English with a touch of Wodehouse and is very much of its time.

The wonderful 1934 cover for the first book in the set of four uniform editions of Longmans’ “A Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer” series.

12,000 copies sold

While Footsteps in the Dark is not Heyer at her best, it remains a pleasant and entertaining story and parts of it are great fun. She was still learning her craft and this new departure from her earlier books would mark the beginning of a series of murder mysteries in both her contemporary and her historical fiction. While the musrder mystery would not prove to be her forte (although The Talisman Ring is a marvellous witty murder mystery) there was something about the mystery that appealed to Heyer. Her son once explained that she regarded writing thrillers ‘rather as one would regard tackling a crossword puzzle–an intellectual diversion before the harder tasks of life have to be faced’. Georgette definitely enjoyed writing Footsteps in the Dark and was delighted when the novel sold 5000 copies in its first three months earning out her advance. Within a year it had sold nearly 12,000 copies and earned her an additional and very useful £800.

A new son and a new book

On 12 February 1932, Georgette Heyer’s baby son, Richard George Rougier, was born on the same day that Footsteps in the Dark was published. A few days later she received a letter from Kenneth Potter of Longmans who hoped that the baby and Footsteps in the Dark ‘were going to be my two most successful works’. In typical Heyer style, some years later Georgette remembered that

‘This work, published simultaneously with my son on Feb. 12th 1932, was the first of my thrillers, and was perpetrated while I was, as any Regency character would have said, increasing. One husband and two ribald brothers all had fingers in it, and I do not claim it as a Major Work.’

Georgette Heyer
Richard George Rougier was born on the same day that Georgette Heyer’s first detective-thriller was published.

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