Monday, May 23, 2016

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE- REVIEW: Penhallow by Georgette Heyer

I’ve read a handful of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances and am always charmed by them. It’s wonderful that there are so many so that I can grab one whenever I’m in the mood for light-hearted romance that won’t disappoint. However, Heyer has also written historical novels that are not romances, as well as historical mystery/detective stories. I have a couple of these on my shelf, but it took the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge to get me to finally read Penhallow.

A quick check of goodreads will show that this classical detective story gets mixed reviews, largely because it’s not a typical detective story at all. There is a murder, but it doesn’t take place until more than half-way through the story and by the time it finally takes place, the reader is anxious for someone, anyone, to murder the guy.

Adam Penhallow is the patriarch of a large, dysfunctional family. Elderly, largely bedridden, his one joy in life is making others suffer. His brood of sons (men who are in their twenties to forties) mostly live in the old family home, sponging off their father. Only the eldest, Raymond, shows any sort of industry, managing the estate and breeding horses for money and for the love of it. The others are hanging on, waiting for their father to die, and squabbling nastily with each other to pass the time.

The women in the crew are miserable and want out. This primarily includes Adam’s second wife, Faith, who is trapped in the marriage and serves as punching bag for one and all, and the wife of one of his sons, Vivian, who is spirited enough to fight back against her father-in-law, but who is equally trapped because she loves her husband who is too lazy to move out and support himself. All of the sons prefer to suffer their father’s continual abuse than to lose access to the money and indolent lifestyle that living with him allows.

Things are changing, though. One son wants to make an unsuitable marriage. Another, who has escaped to live in London, is deeply in debt and is being forced to move home against his will. The youngest son, who is Faith’s only child, is doing poorly at University and has been recalled home where he will be terrorized by his father and brothers.

The novel sets the scene slowly, developing the unpleasant characters with such precision that it’s impossible to like any of them. Their dysfunction and awful personalities can be blamed squarely on the tyrannical father, Penhallow. The storyline is not a whodunnit but rather a which one is going to do it. Once the murder happens, there is no doubt who the killer is, but rather the question is what will happen to the family now.

It’s a wonderfully crafted tale. The murder of the evil tyrant doesn’t free his family to live their lives, but rather unleashes a cascade of further tragedy. It’s a tribute to Georgette Heyer’s skill that I could not look away from this train wreck, but needed to read the book straight through.