Elizabeth: Painting a Quick Picture

Recently I’ve been reading my way through Georgette Heyer’s mystery stories, which has been detrimental to my daily word-count, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

Since I have a mystery of my own that I’m currently working on, I’ve been reading mysteries by a variety of authors – Heyer, Marsh, Hammett, Tey –  deconstructing them to see how they were put together, as somewhat of a self-guided “how-to” master course.  Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even aware the Heyer had written any mysteries.  Once they were pointed out I had only intended to read one or two, just to understand the method and style she used, but it didn’t take long to get hooked and fill my Amazon shopping cart with additional volumes.

Reading hasn’t been all fun and games, especially for the poor corpses that insist upon turning up in each story.  Along the way I’ve managed to learn a fair amount about how to set the scene, introduce the cast of characters, and layout an investigation.  I’ve been caught by a red herring or two, have puzzled over at least one locked-room mystery, and have started (I think) to get the hang of how to subtly place the smallest of clues so that, in hindsight, they’re completely obvious.

One of the most engaging parts of Heyer’s mysteries for me has been the way she describes her characters.  She does a wonderful job of drawing vivid characterizations in a few sentences, without resorting to a dry recitation of facts and adjectives.

Below are a few random descriptions from Detection Unlimited, which I just finished reading yesterday:

“Flora Midgeholme was a good-natured and a plucky woman, who bore uncomplainingly the hardships of a straitened income, eked it out by dispensing with the services of a maid and by breeding dogs, and always presented to the world the part of a woman well-satisfied with her lot.”

“She [Miss Palmdale] was a weather-beaten spinster of angular outline and sharp features.  She invariably wore suits of severe cut, cropped her grey locks extremely short, and screwed a monocle into one eye.”

“He [Henry Haswell] knew the right people, wore the right clothes, and held the right beliefs; and, since he was an unaffected person, he did not pretend to despise the prosperous business which had made it possible for him to acquire all of these advantages.  He threw a large part of his energy into the task of expanding it still further, but always found time to promote charitable schemes, sit on the board of the local hospital, and hunt at least once a week.”

“She [Mrs. Haswell] was a stout woman, with grey hair, and clothes of indeterminate style and color, betraying no sign in her person of the unerring taste she showed in house-decoration, and the arrangement of herbaceous borders.”

“It appeared to him [the Colonel] that Chief Inspector Hemingway approached his task in a disgustingly light-hearted spirit.  He recalled that he had been warned by an old friend at Scotland Yard that he would find the Chief Inspector a little unorthodox.”

My favorite description is the one below.  Not only do we get an image of the unnamed “ghastly people”, but we get a very clear impression of just how the rest of the people in town felt about them; all in two or three sentences.  Now that’s skill!

“. . . those ghastly people who evacuated themselves here from London during the blitz. . . they got things on the Black Market, and said that if you knew your way about you could always get extra petrol.”

I can see I’m going to have to do some further close studying of Heyer’s stories, for reference of course.  Thankfully, I think I have one or two left on the TBR pile.

So, are there any authors that you find particularly adroit at presenting their cast of characters in interesting or creative ways?

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Painting a Quick Picture

  1. I do like a good mystery, and what makes it good for me is the characters! A clever whodunit with nasty or boring characters is fine for one read, but a dumb plot with outstanding people doing interesting things is a joy for several re-reads! I don’t think the mysteries I love best are particularly dumb on plot, but they do have very interesting characters. The Brother Cadfael mysteries were some of my favorites, and I loved a series about a lawyer-turned-herbalist. Susan Wittig Albert, I believe, was the author.

    It really is a skill!

    • Michaeline – I completely agree on the joy of a dumb plot with outstanding characters. One of Heyre’s – No Wind of Bame– has a rather questionable murder plot, but the story itself is simply littered with interesting characters including a Prince and a young woman with a real flair for the dramatic. She appears at various times as Sports Girl, a Femme Fatale, and a poor sweet innocent, among others. Many underestimate her; though really they shouldn’t. She is a wonderful foil for other characters in the story and, frankly, I was much more interested in watching all of them than in finding out who the murderer was, especially since that was one of the few cases where I was quite sure who commuted the crime from the very beginning (though not exactly how).

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