Today I begin a series about a subgenre (possibly a sub-sub-genre) of mystery I find delightful. I’m talking about mysteries concerning the life, cultural impact, and characters of Jane Austen, one of the most respected and best-loved writers ever.
On this list, you will find sequels, alternate universe retellings, modern retellings, crossovers containing all the best characters, and mysteries with Austen herself as sleuth.
One aspect they all share is humor, wit, and portrayals of her characters that I believe Austen might have approved.
I feel honored to have a panel for this article consisting of a trio of Austen’s most beloved busybodies. They graciously assented to give us their impressions of the books.
Mrs. Bennet – Wife and mother of five daughters (!). Receives no help in the onerous task of marrying them off from a sarcastic husband.
Miss Bates – Longtime denizen of Highbury. Well respected by all (except Emma Woodhouse once). Thinks no one in the world is as wonderful as her niece Jane Fairfax, except maybe the person she is currently talking to.
Mrs. Norris – Sister to Lady Bertram. Widow of Mr. Norris, the parish curate. Has plenty of time to help out at Mansfield Park and with this column and thank heaven for that. None of it could get done otherwise.
Mr. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, benefactress to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, also make cameo appearances. Without further ado, let us indulge our Austen-mania, crime fiction-style.
Pride and Prejudice Pastiche
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
James brings a darker atmosphere to an intriguing murder mystery set at Pemberley, the home of Mr. Darcy and the former Elizabeth Bennet. On the eve of the Darcys’ annual ball, a carriage races up the drive, alarming everyone. Inside is Lydia Bennet Wickham, an unexpected guest, screaming that her husband lies murdered in the woods of Pemberley.
Darcy and several other men go to investigate and find instead the body of Wickham’s friend Denny with Wickham very much alive. Wickham confesses, is arrested, and put on trial. But despite his dislike of Wickham, Darcy does not believe him capable of murder.
I found this book gripping, due to the dark atmosphere and excellent writing. P.D. James was an admired and bestselling writer, as well as an ardent Austen fan, so it is no surprise that she turned out such a satisfying Austen mystery. The TV adaptation was also excellent with perhaps the best cast Elizabeth Bennet I’ve ever seen.
Mrs. Bennet: Our dear Wickham a murderer? Something must be done! Surely he is innocent. Mr. Bennet, you must do something!
Mr. Bennet: (Turns page of book.) It’s a book. It’s fictional, my dear. But rest assured, if our “dear” Wickham was ever really to be on trial, I certainly would do something.
Pride and Premeditation (Jane Austen Murder Mysteries 1) by Tirzah Price
I’ve long wanted to read Price’s Austen retellings. This column helps so much with prioritizing my TBR! (Price’s series currently includes this work and a retelling of Sense and Sensibility described below. Manslaughter Park will arrive in 2023.) Price’s takes on Austen’s stories and characters were not what I expected, but I found them a pleasant surprise. Price puts an alternate universe spin on Austen’s stories.
Elizabeth Bennet wants to work at her father’s law firm Longbourn and Sons. Mr. Bennet has chosen the odious Mr. Collins to take over eventually. Collins is incompetent and rude, but Mrs. Bennet remains dead set on Lizzie marrying him.
Mr. Bennet tells Lizzie he will consider her for the open solicitor position and train her if she shows she can solve a case purely with logic, no hunches. She finds out that Mr. Bingley, head of Netherfield Shipping, stands accused of the murder of his brother-in-law George Hurst. He found the body and spent time with him the night before. Hurst was drunk and he helped him home from his club.
Bingley has already engaged Mr. Darcy of the Pemberley Associates Law Firm to be his solicitor. But he agrees to have Lizzie investigate. Lizzie is determined to do whatever it takes to find the real killer, not just win the case against Bingley, but she soon isn’t sure who she can trust or if she will even make it to court alive.
Mrs. Bennet: (Sniffs.) My husband and daughter as lawyers. I would die of shame. Whoever heard of such a thing?
Miss Bates: A lady lawyer! How very novel! I would like to see her argue before the court.
Mrs. Norris: Women shouldn’t be lawyers. But if any of them were, it would be me. I have a deep understanding of people.
Sense and Sensibility Pastiche
Sense and Second-Degree Murder (Jane Austen Murder Mysteries 2) by Tirzah Price
This is the only Sense and Sensibility retelling I’ve encountered so far. I liked it very much, even better than the first in the series Pride and Premeditation (described above).
In this retelling, Mr. Dashwood supports his family by working as a private investigator. Marianne is very eager to follow in his footsteps and helps him with cases sometimes. Elinor is passionate about science, particularly chemistry, while younger sister Margaret spends her time reading and writing novels.
After Elinor finds Mr. Dashwood dead in his study, her sister-in-law Fanny unceremoniously removes the Dashwood women from their home. Marianne suspects that their father’s death wasn’t natural and John and Fanny’s eagerness to move into the family home increases this suspicion. Elinor will have none of this until she remembers the open window in Mr. Dashwood’s study. When she and Marianne discover a mysterious substance in his teacup, the investigation begins. But will Marianne’s passion prove her downfall when her new love Willoughby seems to be involved? Will Elinor save the day with Science or will she blow up the kitchen? Or both?
Never fear, alternate versions of Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars (renamed Farrows for some reason) both play important roles in the story.
Mrs. Bennet: What if this happens to me after Mr. Bennet dies? Living in a flat? My daughters working?! (Shudders and faints, falling on Miss Bates, who fans her anxiously.)
Mrs. Norris: If they were better people, this wouldn’t have happened to them. I am indispensable at Mansfield, but I would never enter a profession.
Miss Bates: (Struggling a bit to hold up Mrs. Bennet) Those young ladies are so plucky! And really remain so genteel, no matter the circumstances. (Author reminds her of some of Marianne’s behavior with Willoughby.) Oh, well, youthful high spirits. We can’t condemn young love. I’m sure my niece Jane would say the same.
The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray
George and Emma Knightley host a house party at their home Donwell Abbey. Their two children are at the seashore with the Westons, but we soon meet Jonathan Darcy (oldest son of Darcy and Elizabeth) and Juliet Tilney (daughter of Henry and Catherine from Northanger Abbey). We are also reacquainted with Darcy and Elizabeth, Marianne and Brandon, Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth, and Fanny and Edmund Bertram. And Wickham, of course. (The Eltons, Miss Bates, and Harriet Smith all make cameos, since the book is set in the Knightleys’ home village.) Frank Churchill and his daughter Grace also play important roles in the story. (Jane Fairfax died in childbirth and Lydia Bennet Wickham died of smallpox three years before the events of this story.)
Wickham shows up uninvited during dinner the first night, causing great upset. And not just to Darcy, Elizabeth, and their son. It turns out everyone there, except for Juliet Tilney, has a connection to Wickham. When foul weather traps them all under the same roof the next day and the next, someone snaps. Juliet finds Wickham dead in the portrait gallery. Which of Austen’s beloved characters is a murderer? And will they get away with it? I mean the author making a loved Austen character into a murderer. (I kid. Partly.)
Mrs. Bennet: Wickham again! Why must everyone besiege poor Wickham? I’m sure all of these other people are not so very agreeable.
Mrs. Norris: If I had been in charge of this house party, this never would have happened. I would not allow a murder at my house party. And there was no need to invite Fanny.
Miss Bates: Oh, but they are all such lovely people! I cannot believe any of them a murderer. I cannot believe anyone a murderer. At least I can be sure it wasn’t my niece Jane Fairfax, since she died in childbirth in this story. (Wipes away a tear.)
What Happened on Box Hill (Austen University Mysteries 1) by Elizabeth Gilliland
Austen University in Highbury, Louisiana, boasts a thriving Greek system. Freshman Caty Morland is thrilled to get into the Kappas along with her new best friend Isabella Thorpe.
On Initiation Night, Isabella plummets to her death at the after-party on Box Hill. Everyone thinks it’s an accident except true crime aficionado Caty. With the help of new friend Tilney, she sets out to find justice for her best friend. But many secrets are revealed before the killer is, including incidents between Caty and Isabella. Isabella had a secret life and one of those secrets might have killed her.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh: I run this university, yet I don’t appear in the story. I cannot countenance this insult. I demand this be rectified in the next installment.
Mrs. Bennet: My daughter. At university. I – I (Begins wailing incoherently.)
Mrs. Norris: How dare they besmirch Maria’s reputation? As if calling her Marla fools anyone.
Miss Bates: My dear Jane studying music! Nothing else suits her so well! I am so gratified.
Austen Cultural Impact
Midnight in Austenland (Austenland 2) by Shannon Hale
Charlotte Kinder needs to occupy herself while her kids stay with her ex James and his mistress turned fiancée Justice for a month this summer. She finds a list of “Things to do before I’m 30” that she wrote in middle school. One of the unfinished goals is to read Jane Austen. So, after devouring and thoroughly enjoying all of Austen’s books, she finds out about Austenland and books a stay.
Austenland is fun, if strange. As Charlotte works to overcome her nervousness about being charming enough for her assigned romantic interest, one of the other actors introduces an old mystery into the proceedings. Charlotte, desperate to keep her mind off her nerves and her worry about her kids, latches on to the problem to solve. But a secret room and a real corpse weren’t supposed to be part of the package.
Author Shannon Hale, who writes the Princess in Black children’s series with her husband Dean Hale, is a favorite of mine. So, I was delighted to see she is the author of this series. The same cheeky humor and heart pervade the story, but with romance and murder added.
Mrs. Bennet: None of us are in this. And I find it confusing. They dress and act like us for amusement?
Mrs. Norris: I like this idea. I wonder if I could start something similar at Mansfield? Perhaps they could pay to pretend to be Americans?
Miss Bates: Such a lovely story. Such a comfort to know the future isn’t that different. I must write to Jane about it this minute.
Fictionalized Versions of Austen’s Life
The Being a Jane Austen Mystery series by Stephanie Barron
I have read many installments of this series and enjoyed them all. I think this is still my favorite Austen pastiche. (I previously profiled the first book Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor in my “Famous Authors as Sleuths” column.) In this series, mystery novel manuscripts written by Austen based on mysteries she solved in real life have been discovered in a coal cellar in Maryland. Austen is an amateur sleuth who stumbles upon mysteries going about her regular life, in the grand tradition of amateur sleuths everywhere.
Barron’s Austen is an eager, incisive sleuth while staying true to what we know of Austen’s personality. Barron also uses some of the events and travels of Austen and her family in the series, as well as beautifully imitating Austen’s writing style while slightly modernizing it.
Mrs. Bennet: Who is this Miss Austen? I’m sure I never heard of her. She and her sister are still unmarried? Their poor parents.
Mrs. Norris: I could catch murderers just as well. But I don’t need to. No one in our acquaintance would ever stoop to murder.
Miss Bates: Ohhh, I enjoyed this very much. So scary. Miss Austen must be very brave. Such an elegant writer. Just like my niece Jane. Let me read you her latest letter.
Tell us in the comments: What is your favorite Austen pastiche?
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.