After reading a series of Georgette Heyer classic crime and Regency romance novels one after the other, Heyer’s Penhallow was a surprise. It’s a character-based story of [mostly] unpleasant people in a nasty, scheming family, ruled over by the bad-tempered patriarch, Penhallow. He’s a sharp-tongued mean old man, so it’s only a matter of time before he gets what’s coming to him…
This is definitely a more sophisticated novel. It is not structured as the classic crime novel *.
* Typical structure: roughly 30% is setting the scene, then the crime happens. For about 30%, the investigator gets nowhere trying to figure out who is guilty. The last 30% gradually works towards the dénouement.
Instead, Penhallow consists, for more than two-thirds, of presenting the characters and situations. Then yes, eventually there is a crime. But we know who is guilty. The last part is the search for the guilty party. And it ends in an unusual way too (I’m trying to avoid spoilers).
I wish more of our modern crime writers would take inspiration from this. I get so bored of the 30-30-30 model. This keeps you interested just because you don’t know where it’s heading.
The dysfunctional family in this novel is made up of mostly unlikable people. When one of them is finally bumped off, however, the consequences are not at all what were expected. I read somewhere that Heyer herself considered this her best novel and was disappointed by its relative lack of success. To me, it confirms what a strong novelist she was.
Heyer was most famous for her Regency novels, which although they are masterpieces in their genre, can be read as escapist fluff. Penhallow was Heyer’s attempt to be seen as a serious literary figure. It was a brave attempt, but largely failed. She blamed her publisher and the war, and perhaps she was right. Maybe readers in 1943 had enough nastiness to deal with and only wanted escapism and fluff. Perhaps it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. She reacted by reverting to one of her most fluffy Regency novels, Friday’s Child. It would become one of her most-loved creations.
If you are interested in crime novels, this is definitely one to read, if for nothing else than to be able to compare it with others in the genre. But don’t get me wrong. Don’t read it just out of academic interest – it’s a very good read as well, albeit brutal!
Find Penhallow on Amazon and at other bookstores.