Among fans of mystery novels, cozies are a favorite subgenre. Cozies are set in domestic situations: say, a house party, where family and friends are gathered to celebrate a holiday, a birthday, or other special occasion. The family and/or friends are generally a contentious and motley assortment, prone to shouting matches and unkind repartee. There is, of course, a crime committed in this setting, most usually a murder. The murder victim either has a good deal of money to leave to grieving survivors, has no redeeming social qualities, or knows some deep dark secret the murderer deems worth killing to protect. The murderer is always a member of the party. And there is always a sagacious police officer who works out the puzzle and brings the miscreant to justice; alternatively, one of the houseguests is good at solving such puzzles (think, here, of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, or other such notables) and summons the police just in time to prevent another murder and to take the killer into custody.
What better time than Christmas could there be to put such a crew together, stand back and watch the spirit of the season go sour?
My all-time favorite Christmas cozy was written by the English author Georgette Heyer: Envious Casca, published in 1941 but set in the early 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II. Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) is best known for her series of funny Regency romances, set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but she wrote several mysteries in the cozy genre over the course of her career, beginning with Footsteps in the Dark (1932) and ending with Detection Unlimited (1953).
Envious Casca takes its title from Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar, Act III, scene II: “See what a rent the envious Casca made.” At the beginning of the story, we are told that wealthy curmudgeon Nathaniel Herriard has taken in his impoverished brother Joseph—a retired actor who trumpets his triumphs in the great Shakespearean roles but who, as another character unkindly observes, “has character-actor written all over him”—and Joseph’s oddly passive wife, Maud, a onetime chorus girl whose passion in life is reading biographies of royal personages. Joseph is presented as a well-meaning but fundamentally tactless old fraud who bulldozes the unwilling Nat into hosting a “real English Christmas gathering” and to that end invites a ill-considered assortment of houseguests: Nat’s nephew and heir Stephen Herriard, Stephen’s vapid fiancee Valerie and actress sister Paula, Nat’s business partner Edgar Mottisfont, and Matilda Clare, a cousin of the Herriards. Paula brings along an avant-garde playwright, Willoughby Royston, for whose play (in which, coincidentally, she has the starring role), she hopes to gain Nat’s financial backing. Various quarrels break out in the course of a reading from the play; meanwhile, Joe has further tried Nat’s patience by decorating for Christmas with more enthusiasm than good taste. He leaves a stepladder on a staircase landing, where Nat, afflicted by lumbago, trips over it on his way up to dress for dinner. Joe makes matters worse by clapping Nat on the back in the exact spot where Nat’s pain is worst, and Nat, clutching his back, goes upstairs, locks his door—and does not answer calls to come to dinner. When Stephen, Joe, Mottisfont and Ford, Nat’s valet, force the door, they find Nat lying dead—on, of all evenings of the year, Christmas Eve.
The local police profess themselves flummoxed and call in Scotland Yard. Enter the most famous of Heyer’s various detectives: Chief Inspector Hemingway, a man with a sharp wit, a passion for both psychology and drama, and a remarkable way of “bringing home the bacon” in impossible cases.
Maud, Joe’s frankly colorless wife, is obsessed by a mystery of her own; someone has taken her current book—a biography of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, herself a murder victim. Maud keeps insisting that Hemingway should look into this matter (it is a library book, after all, and she is a very conscientious woman about library books), while Joe tries to dissuade her from bothering the Inspector. Meanwhile, Stephen’s prospective mother-in-law has arrived, summoned by the panicky Valerie; she takes it upon herself to break Valerie’s engagement, which leaves the romantic subplot—Stephen is actually in love with Matilda Clare, herself apparently the last person to see Nat Herriard alive—room to develop.
Eventually, Maud’s book is found partially burnt in the incinerator. The Chief Inspector’s sergeant suggests to Hemingway that the one constant in this seemingly impenetrable mystery IS the late Empress; Hemingway looks Her Majesty up in Encyclopedia Britannica, and finds the solution to his puzzle.
Heyer does herself proud in this book; she captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of a houseparty, none of whom can stand each other (save for Stephen and Matilda), the horrible suspicions each member has of the others, and the growing suspicion that Maude’s missing book may hold the key to the whole mystery, masterfully.
Over the past several years, Heyer’s books have begun to be reissued. Envious Casca is, I think, one which has been reissued. It’s a good one to curl up with in the midst of a chilly Christmas season—just add hot chocolate, cookies, heat (an open fire would be good, but gas or electric are okay too), a blanket, decorations, and you’re all set.
I’m in an oddly energetic fit today, and after the laundry and miscellaneous chores, not to mention some baking, I think I’ll settle in to exactly that. Wonderful way to while away a cold cloudy afternoon when snow threatens.