Why Shoot a Butler?

“If you think I’m a thief–oh, and a murderess too!–why don’t you give me up to the police?” she said bitterly.
“Well,” said Mr. Amberly, “having given way to a somewhat foolish impulse and refrained from mentioning your presence on the scene of the murder to the police, I can’t very well come out with it now. And who am I to question your interest in antiques?”
“She put up her hand and ripped her mask off; her face was flushed, her eyes stormy. “I hate you!” she shot out. “You didn’t shield me out of–out of–consideration! It was because you want to solve what you choose to think is a mystery by yourself!”

[I just spent an hour writing this post and lost it all, so I’m going to do my best to try to remember what I said!]

Respected barrister Frank Amberly is off to pay a visit to his uncle and aunt Lord and lady Matthews and their daughter Felicity. On the way he spots a car pulled over on the side of a dark road and a female bending over it. Though annoyed at already being late and in no mood for pleasantries or changing flats, he stops to see what the trouble is. That’s when he notices the bullet hole in the windshield. The girl is both afraid and defiant at the intrusion. He pushes her away from the dead body in the driver’s seat, shot through the heart and with rifled pockets. Surprisingly, Amberly leaves the girl at the scene of the crime, and omits any mention of her when reporting the body. He doesn’t believe that she was the murderer, and if she actually was caught red-handed, she is fool enough for the police to do so again.

The dead man turns out to have been the butler of the Fountains, neighbors of the Matthews. Jasper Fountain passed away two years ago, leaving the entire estate to his nephew Basil. Basil now lives there full time with his step-sister Joan, a friend of Felicity’s who is engaged to marry Anthony Corkran. The butler had very little money, so there seems to be no motive for killing or even robbing him on the deserted road.

Amberly also is introduced to the girl from the car, though reluctantly on her part. Shirley Brown has just recently rented the furnished Ivy Cottage with her alcoholic younger brother. Amberly has the strong sense that Shirley has something to hide, and the even stronger suspicion she will in no way share it with him. When the police ask him to assist in the investigation, he almost feels an obligation to both them and Shirley. Not, of course, that he has any qualms about having obstructed justice.

The third person perspective does occasionally shift away from Amberly, so that the reader has somewhat of a sense of what is going on. That’s more than can be said for the rest of the characters, though Amberly himself is always one step ahead of the game. The events aren’t necessarily easy to understand, either. We have what is clearly a murder, but the most obvious suspect is too obvious. A second death occurring later on is ruled accidental, but a strong suspect from the first murder is found trying to revive the body. At the same time, however, murder comes across as neither the most interesting or important element of the plot, just a backdrop for Georgette Heyer’s particular brand of light social comedy.

Her trademark conversational wit is also present, often through the police. The local constabulary are all eager for promotion, but the sole smart move they make is to enlist Amberly’s aid. The sergeant is the only one with even half a brain.

In many ways Amberly reminds me of Perry Mason. His legal background gives him a strong sense of intuition, a good understanding of the intricacies and implications of the investigation, and an unerring instinct for what the next step should be. He runs circles around the police, and is not afraid to employ questionable methods to achieve his end. Above all, he is devastatingly confident in his own abilities, and acts superior to everyone else. Though I love Perry, Amberly’s particular brand of brusqueness just didn’t cut it for me.

“I don’t like you at all. You’re obstinate and self-willed and abominably secretive. Your manners are atrocious, and you’re a damned little nuisance. And I rather think I worship you.”

If Amberly’s politeness leaves something to be desired, Shirley’s personality is certainly lacking sugar as well. She is frequently impudent and ungracious, and has absolutely no desire for Amberly’s help. Yet it is this very “surliness” that attracts him when they first meet, even before he sees her in a good light. My favorite character, on the other hand, is the wonderful Lady Matthews. She is equal parts matriarchal, ridiculous, and lovable, displaying an intuition and prescience her nephew often calls witchcraft and a talent for spinning a conversation out of nonsense. She’s also the only one whom Frank will ever actually listen to.

This will never be my favorite mystery, mostly because I didn’t like the leads. I guess it makes sense that two rude people would attract each other, but they never seemed like people I would want to hang out with. The plot, at least, was good. Envious Casca still holds the title of my favorite Georgette Heyer mystery.

Also, a random note: my copy is an old Berkley paperback, and has one of the most bizarre features I’ve ever seen. The outside is normal, but the inside covers are really sleek and glossy, almost like photo paper. Has anyone else ever seen that in a book before?


Published in: on February 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] are contrary to his suspicions. As a reader I hated him, but he was far from the bumbling fool that incorrect inspectors often are. Agnew, on the other hand, was probably my favorite character. He has all the cavalier innocence of […]

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