Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Footsteps in the Dark, by Georgette Heyer


The Fortescue siblings--Celia, Peter, and Margaret--are thrilled with the estate they've unexpectedly inherited. The Priory is the perfect place for a holiday, and they, along with Celia's solicitor husband Charles Malcolm, are determined to enjoy themselves. After all, the locals' talk of The Monk that haunts the ground is only so much rubbish, isn't it? But before long, the Malcolms and the Fortescues learn firsthand that there may be more to the ghost stories than they thought--eerie noises startle them, a cowled figure keeps popping up around the house and grounds, and a skeleton drops at their very feet. But Charles and Peter aren't convinced that supernatural forces are at work; they believe they're being tormented by a flesh and blood villain. But why? And who could it be? Mr. Titmarsh, the entomologist who's always flitting about their grounds? He claims he's looking for moths, but could he have a more sinister purpose? Then there's the irritable, heavy-drinking French artist, Louis Duval, who rants and raves about The Monk. Is he just crazy, or does he know something? And what about the mysterious Mr. Strange? He claims to be on holiday, but no one seems to know anything about him, and he certainly has a habit of showing up under suspicious circumstances. Margaret is positive that he means them no harm, but the others aren't so sure. But if not him, then who? What are his plans for the new tenants of the Priory? There's already been at least one violent death connected with The Monk--who will be next?

The first of Heyer's thrillers, this book was originally published in 1932, and was written while she was pregnant with her only child, Richard. She never thought highly of it, dismissing it as less than a 'major work' and noting that several men in her family had a hand in it. Still, there's plenty of Heyer in the story--quirky characters, understated responses, British sarcasm, romance, and adventure. In fact, many of the elements here are used to excellent effect in Heyer's later works, The Reluctant Widow and The Unknown Ajax (classed as Regency romances, not thrillers, despite sporting such delights as secret passageways, criminal conspiracies, and smugglers). Footsteps in the Dark, despite its romantic elements, is set in then-modern day England, and as such falls into the 'thriller' category. Also, I freely admit that Footsteps in the Dark is primarily about The Monk and his activities in and around the Priory, while The Reluctant Widow and The Unknown Ajax focus more on the characters and the romance that develops between them, so I suppose that could be the reason for the differing 'genres'.

As far as I know, this is Heyer's only 'haunted house' story, and I was interested to see how she would handle it. Her other works are completely naturalistic--there isn't a hint of fantasy or even real religion in them. Even vicars are, at most, moral teachers, and often not even that--their relevance is quite frequently limited to their social role. Like Jane Austen before her, Heyer advocates calm, rational thinking and views any belief in the supernatural with skepticism--when she acknowledges it at all. (I've no wish to give away the nature of The Monk, so I won't go any further on that head.)

The story itself is fairly entertaining, though that may be due in large part to Maureen O'Brien's excellent narration of the audiobook. This was my first Heyer audiobook, so I don't know if the other thrillers would be improved by being read aloud by competent narrators. It's certainly possible, and you'd better believe I'll be keeping an eye out for more Heyer audiobooks. O'Brien does a great job creating distinct voices for the various characters--Celia's fluttery soprano is both consistent with her rather timid character and distinguishes her from her calmer, more rational sister; Charles' sneer fits perfectly with his sarcastic and skeptical attitude; and the incompetent but well-meaning Constable Flinders sounds, well, incompetent but well-meaning.

All in all, it's a fun, absorbing mystery, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The characters aren't as fully developed as in Heyer's better romances, but the storyline makes up for that.

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