Rest & Recreation
Having delivered The Talisman Ring manuscript in good time to her agent, in mid-July 1936, Georgette once again took her family to Bamburgh for two week’s of rest and recreation. This time she had decided not to stay in an hotel, but had instead booked a house at Number 3 The Wynding, just a short walk from the beach. This Edwardian terrace house must have suited her for she wrote happily from there to Norah Perriam to say that:
“The brain is lying wonderfully fallow! I did bring my typewriter, but haven’t used it, & don’t expect to. I spend my time sitting on the sands, or visiting Places of Interest.Georgette Heyer to Norah Perriam, letter, 17 July 1936
The weather was lovely and photos show Georgette paddling in the shallows of the bay while Ronald and Richard enjoy shrimping.
A new detective novel
After a few days of sun and sand, Georgette was beginning to think about her next book. She knew it was to be a new detective novel but that was all and she still had a mind to write some more short stories. After a week at Bamburgh she reported to “feeling much more like myself” and had “collected one or two ideas for short stories” which she planned to write on her return to Sussex. She was home again in August and pleased to find that her Hodder sales for Behold, Here’s Poison were good. Her agent suggested that she might consider taking her historical fiction from Heinemann and letting Hodder & Stoughton have those novels as well as her detective fiction but Georgette wrote back to say:
“I don’t really fancy them instead of Heinemann, but I think an eye might be kept on Heinemann for all that.”Georgette Heyer to Norah Perriam, letter, 26 August 1936.
She had begun her new detective novel and decided to call it, They Found Him Dead. It was another Shakespearean quote, this time from Act V of King John. Heyer had been raised on Shakespeare and knew many of his plays by heart. The plays, their plots and characters, would inspire many of her novels and much of the vivid characterisation and ironic humour in her books derives from her reading of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
“Mystification and fear”
They Found Him Dead would be her third detective story to feature Superintendent Hannayside and Sergeant Hemingway and would have a large and eclectic cast of characters. Georgette often drew inspiration for her characters from real life and They Found Him Dead was to be no exception. In addition to her two police detectives, there would be fifteen other people in the book (“exclusive of servants”) and “a general atmosphere of Mystification & Fear”. She thought it would be a good choice for a serial in Woman’s Journal or possibly some other Associated Press magazine but was to be disappointed. Perhaps Georgette’s anger over the unexpected cancellation of Behold, Here’s Poison as a for serial had put the editor, Dorothy Sutherland, offside, but it was to be ten years before she was again serialised in Woman’s Journal. Miss Sutherland had explained that the cancellation had been due to the Abdication of King Edward VIII, but one cannot help wondering why the editor did not pick up more of Georgette’s historical novels after the success of The Talisman Ring. That was for the future, however, and for now Georgette was enthusiastic about the new murder mystery and enjoying herself writing several new kinds of characters.
Rosemary Kane is the vain and self-absorbed wife of Clement Kane whose Uncle Silas is pushed off a cliff. Rosemary is superbly portrayed and has some of the best lines in the novel. She’s a stormy beauty with a personality to match and she has her eye on the handsome Trevor Dermott whom she thinks might make her a better husband than her current spouse, the uninspiring, desiccated, Clement. Rosemary wishes for a more exciting, exotic life and one with a lot more money in it. She plays the victim brilliantly and loves being the centre of attention. Though she and Georgette were not really alike, there is one scene, however, where Rosemary speaks words that might easily have come from Heyer herself:
“You see, I know myself so frightfully well– I think that’s my Russian blood coming out…My grandfather was a Russian… I know I’m selfish, capricious, extravagant and fatally discontented…I wasn’t born to this humdrum life in a one-eyed town, surrounded by in-laws, with never enough money, and the parlour-maid always giving notice, and all that sort of ghastly sordidness…I’m the sort of person who has to have money…you can say what you like, but money does ease things.
This satirical swipe at her own imperfections is very funny, but Heyer also made a point of writing several of her acquaintances into the novel. One of these was a woman she’d met at Bamburgh but she also included “Striking portraits” of her brother-in-law, Leslie, his wife, Tam, and their two young sons. In They Found Him Dead this is the Pemble family (although in the novel the Pembles have a son and a daughter) and Betty Pemble is one of those adoring mothers, always fussing over her children and believing them to be far above the average while Clive Pemble is a decent, taciturn man who sees no fault in his brood. Georgette described them as the “light relief” along with her hero’s mother, Norma Harte who is a “middle-aged Female Explorer (“out in the Congo one gets used to facing danger”), and her son, Timothy, who is a fifteen-year-old “schoolboy with a predilection for American gangster films.” Georgette had a knack for creating convincing characters and young Timothy Harte was no exception. He would prove a great hit with readers and Heyer would bring him back as an adult in her 1951 murder mystery, Duplicate Death. Timothy’s mother, Norma, is one of Heyer’s plain-speaking women and very good value, although one of her forthright statements caused Georgette to receive a written protest from a reader.
The letter to Georgette was from a young woman working in a tobacconist’s shop. She had read They Found Him Dead and been deeply offended by Norma Kane’s frank reaction to her elder son’s Jim’s the announcement of his engagement to Patricia Allison, old Emily Kane’s companion-secretary:
“Jim tells me you are going to be married. I should think you’ll suit one another very well. It’s always been my dread that he might marry something out of a tobacconist’s shop so you can imagine what a relief it is to me to know he’s had the sense to choose a really nice girl. Not that I’m a snob, but there are limits, and young men are such fools.”They Found Him Dead
The real-life tobacconist’s assistant had sent Georgette a strongly-worded letter of protest in which she demanded an apology, explained that she was removing her from her library list and declaring that, though she worked in a shop, she was “as good as the highest lady in the land”. On the surface, Georgette was untroubled by the complaint for, as she explained to Norah Perriam, “I don’t write for that kind of person, after all” and that she would “regard it as a major tragedy if my son were to marry a tobacconist’s assistant”. To our modern sensibilities this seems (and is) harsh but Georgette had been raised by Victorian parents in a highly structured society that firmly believed in a social hierarchy. In her world everyone had their place, including Georgette. Shored up by her belief in a class system that put tobacconists’ assistants considerably lower down the social scale than herself, her reaction to her correspondent’s complaint was not sympathetic, but it is interesting to note that she never repeated the offence in any of her future books.