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Georgette Heyer's Footsteps in the Dark

Georgette Heyer is best known for her historical romances. Set mainly in Georgian England, these well-researched novels, as The Times (1974) observed, rest on “a firm core of scholarship and expert knowledge of the Regency period.” Less well-known but recently reissued are her 12 detective novels written from the 1930s to the early 1950s. (See my post on Envious Casca). Heyer’s books have always had a dedicated following. “A best-seller all her life without the aid of publicity,” observes Hodge, “she made no appearances, never gave an interview, and only answered fan letters herself if they made an interesting historical point” (2011, ix). Today her books remain popular and can be found on bookstore and library shelves. All her novels are also available as e-books.

Heyer’s first detective novel, Footsteps in the Dark, appeared in 1932. The story involves three siblings who inherit an ancient rural estate called the Priory. This rambling mansion is rumoured to be haunted by a ghostly monk. Peter, Margaret, Celia and husband Charles visit the Priory for a holiday, paying no heed to the rumours until strange events occur and a murder is committed. Footsteps in the Dark combines the best of detective-novel and haunted-house traditions – the perfect story, in fact, for a cold winter night.

Reminiscent of such mystery books as Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Milne’s The Red House Mystery, and Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, Footsteps in the Dark is filled with ghostly sightings, hidden panels in walls, secret underground passageways, a ruined chapel, unexplained night-time noises, a skeleton, and a priest’s hole. The local people warn the new owners that their safety is at stake, and advise them to vacate the haunted mansion. As the narrative progresses, dangers increase and tension mounts. Readers who enjoy Gothic novels (see my blog on the Gothic influence on mystery novels) will find this book hard to put down.

The Sunday Telegraph wrote that Heyer was “sometimes known as the 20th-century Jane Austen” (quoted in Hodge 2011, 219). Like Austen, Heyer depicts characters in a delightfully witty and insightful way. Aunt Lilian and the local villagers could easily have stepped right out of a Jane Austen novel. Footsteps in the Dark is a satisfying combination of an atmosphere-dominated and character-driven novel.

Georgette Heyer was, as Hodge points out, “that rare thing, a steady best-seller” (2011, xiv). If you enjoy cozy novels with a dark, Gothic atmosphere and a light, witty tone, Footsteps in the Dark is the novel for you.

Heyer, Georgette. Footsteps in the Dark. 1932. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2010.

Hodge, Jane Aiken. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2011.

“Georgette Heyer.” The Times. July 6, 1974.