Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

An author famous for Regency romances has a stab at a country house mystery

The Cornerstone edition of Footsteps in the Dark
The Cornerstone edition of
Footsteps in the Dark
Prolific writer Georgette Heyer is famous for creating the Regency England genre of romantic novels, which were inspired by her love of Jane Austen’s books and were meticulously researched and full of period detail.

Georgette is probably less well known for her detective fiction, which she began writing in 1932 when she produced a country house mystery, Footsteps in the Dark.

She wrote the novel while awaiting the birth of her son, Richard George Rougier, and afterwards said dismissively that she did not claim it as ‘a major work’.

For the next few years, Georgette published one romance novel and one detective novel every year. The romances always outsold the detective novels, which may be why Georgette is chiefly remembered for them.

Her son, Richard, once said that Georgette regarded the writing of a detective story as similar to tackling a crossword puzzle, an intellectual diversion before harder tasks had to be faced.

It has been claimed that Georgette’s husband, George Rougier, a mining engineer who later became a barrister, often provided her with the plots and that she created the characters and the relationships and brought the plot points to life.

Georgette’s detective novels have been praised mostly for their humour. The New York Times wrote: ‘Rarely have we seen humour and mystery so perfectly blended.’ The Daily Mail once referred to Georgette as: ‘The wittiest of detective story writers.’

The novels were all set in the period in which they were written and the humour comes from the characters and the dialogue that takes place between them.

I was keen to read her first detective novel, Footsteps in the Dark, and I was not disappointed. 

Georgette Heyer wrote her debut detective novel while pregnant
Georgette Heyer wrote her debut
detective novel while pregnant
Two sisters, Celia and Margaret, and their brother, Peter, inherit an old country house called The Priory from their uncle. The property has not been lived in for many years because their uncle preferred to live elsewhere, but the three of them and Celia’s husband, Charles, decide to spend a few weeks holiday at The Priory. They soon learn from the local people that the house is believed to be haunted but are determined not to be frightened into leaving.

When they hear peculiar noses and a skeleton falls out of a secret cupboard, they try to find out more from the other residents in the village. Then a murder is committed and they feel they have to stay in the house and solve the mystery. I thought it was a carefully plotted story, with believable characters and a satisfying solution at the end.

Georgette produced 12 detective novels in total, between 1932 and 1953 when her final novel, Detection Unlimited was published.

She believed that publicity was not necessary for good sales and, wishing to maintain her privacy, refused to grant interviews, which is perhaps another reason her detective stories have been overlooked. 

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Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Campion risks his life to try to bring an audacious killer to justice

The Vintage edition of  Death of a Ghost
The Vintage edition of 
Death of a Ghost
Death of a Ghost,
Margery Allingham’s sixth novel to feature the gentleman adventurer Albert Campion, was first published in the UK in 1934.

In a note about Campion at the beginning of the book, the author observes that her hero is an adventurer, whose exploits are sometimes picaresque, as in Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger, but he sometimes faces grave difficulties, as in Police at the Funeral. She warns that Death of a Ghost falls into the second category.

When the story starts, preparations are being made for a party at the London home of John Lafcadio, an artist who has been dead for 18 years. It is the eve of the annual ceremony for the unveiling of one of the series of 12 paintings he has left behind in a bid to keep his memory alive.

Campion, who is a friend of the painter’s widow, Belle, visits her the day before the ceremony and attends the unveiling occasion the following evening. When the ceremony is interrupted by a daring and particularly brutal murder, Campion calls in his good friend, Inspector Stanislaus Oates to investigate.

Suspicion falls on a member of the family, but the police can’t find enough proof to make an arrest. But when another murder is committed at the property, Campion decides to investigate for himself to help his old friend, Belle.

I found the novel slow at first, while lots of characters were being introduced and described. The action didn’t really get under way until page 50.

Throughout the novel, Campion seems passive, not behaving at all like the action man that he was in Sweet Danger.

In another departure from her previous stories, Margery reveals that Campion has guessed the identity of the killer and names the person about 100 pages from the end of the book. He says he has no means of proving it and fears for Belle’s safety, lamenting to Inspector Oates that he is being outwitted by the killer.

Campion seems strangely trusting to accept an invitation for a drink at the suspect’s apartment and then to go out to dinner with a person he feels sure has committed two murders.

Peter Davison played Albert Campion in a  BBC TV adaptation of Death of a Ghost
Peter Davison played Albert Campion in a 
BBC TV adaptation of Death of a Ghost
He allows himself to fall into a trap set for him by the suspect and then the action heats up with Campion’s life in danger.

The writer Margery Allingham was born in 1904 in London and began writing at the age of eight when she had a story published in a magazine.

Her first novel was published when she was 19, but she did not make her breakthrough as a crime writer until her novel, The Crime at Black Dudley, was published in 1929. This introduced her series detective, Albert Campion, even though he appeared only as a minor character in her first book.

He was at first thought to be a parody of Dorothy L Sayers’s hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, but Campion matured as the series of books progressed and proved there was a lot more to him, becoming increasingly popular with readers.

Margery Allingham is regarded as one of the four great Queens of Crime from the Golden Age of detective fiction. One of her fellow Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie, once said of the author: “Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light.”

Reviewers have identified Death of A Ghost as a proper detective story rather than a high-spirited thriller, but it differs from other detective stories of the time by having the sleuth identify the killer and share his knowledge with the reader considerably before the end of the book. The reader must wait for proof that Campion is right and to find out whether the police will have enough evidence to arrest the suspect and bring him to justice. But like all good mystery writers, Margery keeps a few surprises up her sleeve until the end of the story.

Death of a Ghost was filmed for the BBC in 1960, when Campion was played by Bernard Horstall, and then again in 1989, when the role was played by Peter Davison.

Vintage Books, part of the Penguin Random House Group, have now republished all Margery’s novels featuring her series detective Albert Campion.

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