A dysfunctional family: Penhallow by Georgette Heyer, 1942

This is the second of Georgette Heyer’s detective novels that I have read, and it has a similar plot to the first – Envious Casca. Like Casca, the plot centres round a group of people gathered in a country house for a family celebration. In this case, all of the people actually live in the house, and the celebration is the birthday of the patriarch, a most unpleasant gentlemen who naturally ends up as the corpse.

I found this novel of interest because it is so unusual a detective novel. In fact I don’t really think it’s one at all. The murder doesn’t happen until over half way through the book, and the intrepid constabulary fail to identify the murderer. The first half of the book is taken up presenting the reader with a portrait of a dysfunctional family. Adam Penhallow, the patriarch, is a tyrant, who through his control of the family finances is able to force his unwilling sons to continue to reside in the family house. Through the interactions of the various family members, and the servants, we are given masterful descriptions of people, none of them particularly likeable, and yet who all generate some sympathy in the reader for their invidious position.

And yet. The last words in the novel sum it up quite nicely;

“You’re right, sir,” the Inspector said, “A very unsatisfactory case.”

There are no clear-cut answers here, no heroic detective who uncovers The Ghastly Truth, indeed no ghastly truth is never uncovered at all. Very unsatisfactory, and for that probably truer to life than most detective fiction.

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2 responses to “A dysfunctional family: Penhallow by Georgette Heyer, 1942

  1. Regardless of the inadequate ending, despite poor Raymond’s death being so unfairly interpretted, Penhallow was a brilliant book. It depicted a realistic dysfunctional family, the overbearing tyranny of an aging father. Each and every character has an unsaid air to them, and we feel differently towards each.

  2. yasmeen abbasi

    Regardless of the inadequate ending, despite poor Raymond’s death being so unfairly interpretted, Penhallow was a brilliant book. It depicted a realistic dysfunctional family, the overbearing tyranny of an aging father. Each and every character has an unsaid air to them, and we feel differently towards each.

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