NOV / DEC 2011: BY SHANNON H.
When one thinks of 19th century literary mysteries, one thinks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary detective, Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson. But imagine a dead laborer found in a basement, an unpopular naval officer assassinated, beautiful women allegedly murdered by their scorned lovers, or a teenage girl strangled to death in the bedroom of a famous poet. These could all be cases Holmes and Watson would pursue but they are not found in any of Doyle’s books. The cases are fictional but the sleuth behind them is all too real.
These mysterious plots and more are the brainchild of author Stephanie Barron. What makes these mystery novels interesting and unique is that the “detective” is none other than Regency author Jane Austen herself. While she wasn’t a private eye in real life, Jane brings her wit and smarts to solve murder cases in this fictional mystery series, often at the risk of being imprisoned or killed. Barron does a wonderful job channeling Jane Austen’s personality and character into these books. In situations where the authorities point the finger at a suspect due to circumstantial evidence, Jane looks beyond the obvious by talking to servants and other people who aren’t questioned by authorities but do provide valuable information. She doesn’t act alone as she is often working alongside friends and relatives, even her brother Edward, the local magistrate, in the novel Jane and the Canterbury Tale.
Aside from solving murder mysteries, the reader is introduced to Jane Austen and her personal life as she mourns the death of her sister-in-law and cousin Eliza de Feuillide and recalls her friendship with fictional adventurer Lord Harold Trowbridge. She also secretly compares her friends and family to the characters in her novels.
The idea of Jane Austen as a Regency era sleuth is unique and unconventional but she makes a good one. While not necessarily better than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or even Hercule Poirot, Jane makes for an interesting case solver. The author brings a sense of freshness to the mystery genre with her Jane Austen mystery series. While most mystery writers create their own detectives, Barron uses a real life figure, one that has the sense (and, at times, sensibility) and critical thinking skills required for sleuthing. The books also give the reader an idea about life not just in Regency England but during the times of the Napoleonic Wars, as is the case in the novel Jane & the Prisoner of Wool House where she and her brother Frank, a naval captain, try to clear the good name of one of Frank’s fellow officers that was accused of murder. Barron puts Jane in contact with the early 19th century poet, Lord Byron as he is considered a suspect in the murder of a teenage girl in Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron; it speculates what kind of conversation Jane and Lord Byron would have if the two actually met each other. From Edward’s home in Godmersham to the high seas, Jane has proved herself a good and often unconventional detective.
Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series is a great read for those who are fans of the mystery genre as well as Jane Austen’s works. Think about it; if Jane were a real life Sherlock Holmes in Regency Era England, she would make the perfect sleuth. With the ability to create stories and novels, Jane Austen has the sense to sniff out the truth shrouded in mystery. ■