Part 2 of my journey through Jane Austen mysteries includes a possible explanation of Austen’s death, Charlotte Collins and Mary Bennet as detectives, a Mansfield Park mystery, a chick-lit cozy mystery, and a series where Darcy and Elizabeth investigate together. I discovered that I prefer the pastiche involving Austen’s characters or Austen herself rather than modern mysteries involving Austen fans, but I found good examples of both and now it’s time to share them with you.
Our first panel of experts proved unavailable, but characters from each book (or connected to the source material) listed today graciously agreed to comment.
Historical Fiction about Austen’s Life
The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford
Anne Sharp, left homeless and without family due to her father dying in debt, arrives as governess at Godmersham, the home of Edward and Elizabeth Austen. (The family name became Knight, like his adoptive family, later.) Edward is the older brother of Jane Austen and the father of Fanny, one of her favorite nieces. Miss Sharp soon grows to love Fanny and proves an excellent governess. But when she meets Jane, she feels a very different love. (The book makes it plain that Miss Sharp is gay without actually coming out and saying it.)
It’s never quite clear whether Jane returns her feelings, but she certainly loves her and values their friendship, which continues until the author’s death in 1817 at age 41. Jane suffered from a lengthy illness and when Anne hears of her symptoms and the similarities to the symptoms of other recently deceased family members, she becomes suspicious and begins investigating. She gets her keepsake lock of Jane’s hair tested (high levels of arsenic) and questions family members who were present when the others died. But eventually, she must choose between vengeance and moving forward with her life.
I found this book to be engrossing, well-written, dark, romantic, and yet somehow comforting. Ashford made the Austen family into such compelling characters that I want to know all about the Austen family now. I liked the characterization of Jane and the family drama and intrigue. It could have been too much and ended up cheesy or melodramatic with a lesser writer.
Jane Austen: I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of this account. But it is a thrilling story.
Supporting Character Pastiche
The Lovesick Maid (Charlotte Collins Mysteries 1) by Mark Brownlow
I found Charlotte Lucas Collins annoying at times in my readings of Pride and Prejudice, but I find her an agreeable main character in this series starter. She is understanding, but firm in her beliefs. Her contentment in her marriage to Mr. Collins seems real, but the frustrations and some wistfulness for more add to the realism.
Charlotte goes to the home of one of Rosings’ (Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s, patroness of Mr. Collins and aunt to Mr. Darcy, estate) footmen to check on his daughter, who also works at the estate as a maid. Mary Booth has been ailing and missed work for several days. It is uncertain whether she is physically ill or lovesick over her father Adam’s refusal to allow her to marry Tom Calker, a footman who asked to court her.
Mary becomes better only to fall ill again. This cycle repeats and Charlotte begins to worry that the sickness comes from the cure. Mary only consumed treatments from Rosings’ stillroom. Did a snake oil salesman who sickened people in neighboring towns manage to peddle some wares in Hunsford? Or does Lady Catherine unknowingly harbor someone who wishes harm to Mary?
This book is more of a novella and an enjoyable read. I found Charlotte good company and her relationship with Mr. Collins humorous. Charlotte’s ability to get at least some of what she wants out of life is admirable, as is her care for her husband’s parishioners and wish to be fully accepted by them. (They like her, but still see her as an outsider.) The mystery involves genuine moments of suspense, although it becomes clear quickly that the concoction Mary takes is making her sick. The reason and culprit are not.
Mr. Collins: Lady Catherine is always so good in her attentions to her servants! I am so pleased that I encouraged my wife to get to the bottom of this.
Charlotte Collins: (deep breath) Thank you, dearest. You are always so wise when approving the actions of others.
The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet (The Secret Life of Mary Bennet 1) by Katherine Cowley
Mr. Bennet died, and Mary takes her turn sitting up with the body. A late-night knock surprises her. The visitors, Lady Trafford and Mr. Withrow, claim to be relatives and they come in to pay their respects.
After Mary foils the theft of the family’s mourning rings and Lady Trafford’s case, Lady Trafford offers for Mary to stay with her and Withrow at Castle Durrington and continue her education. Mary agrees.
Mary finds a dead body on her first trip to the nearby beach. It is the body of the thief Mary foiled, who turns out to be Mr. Holloway, a curate from Crawley. She alerts the authorities in a nearby village who alert Withrow, who’s already odd, secretive behavior increases. Mary begins to investigate not only the murder, but her hosts, despite her inclination to trust Lady Trafford. But Mary’s stubbornness and dependence on certain rules for behavior begin to alienate her new friends and cause Mary to doubt her abilities in everything. She realizes that she might need help more in interpersonal relations than French, and that a secret reason exists for Lady Trafford’s interest in her.
I sympathized so deeply with Mary’s struggles with “normal” behavior and between fitting in and being true to herself. Also, with her propensity for accidentally offending people or going on too long about things. (I suspect Mary might be on the autism spectrum.) We see a much more human side of Mary in this story with her difficulty processing her grief over her father’s death and her desire to repair relationships when she offends. She possesses such bravery and intelligence and just needs encouragement and guidance.
The story was excellent with its backdrop of the Regency and the Napoleonic Wars. I loved Kitty’s letter to Mary and hope we see more of her in subsequent books. And I loved that they included descriptions of the art of letter locking! I only recently learned about that topic from Atlas Obscura and I found it completely fascinating.
Mary Bennet: I’m pleased I finally found a talent that doesn’t annoy people. Although it annoys me that I can’t tell them about it.
Mansfield Park Pastiche
The Mansfield Park Murders by Victoria Grossack
Susan Price just wants some amusement to vary the days at Mansfield Park. While she loves her home, she misses her sister Fanny, who moved away after her marriage. Susan gets more than she bargained for when a visitor Mr. George Yates, older brother to her cousin Julia’s husband, turns up murdered in the stables. The finger of blame could and does point at practically everyone during Sir Thomas and Susan’s investigation, including most of the Bertram siblings. Then more deaths and a threat to Mansfield Park itself arise. Will the culprit be found? Or will an innocent person or the entire Bertram family pay for the crime?
While I don’t dislike Fanny Price as many do, I found Susan a much more interesting heroine. She is intelligent, spirited, loyal, and loving. Reading more of the characters from Mansfield Park helped me appreciate anew the uniqueness of both characters and story in that novel. While still humorous, that novel is darker and more complex. The mystery in this continuance arises from that complexity leading to an interesting plot and solution.
Fanny Price: While I wish I could have helped with the situation, I am glad I did not have to deal with it. Dear Susan appears much more equal to dealing with Aunt Norris’s poisonous outbursts.
Maria Bertram: Another Price replaces me while my brother Tom gets away with worse behavior than what I am banished for.
Lady Bertram: Did something happen? Oh, well, my husband will handle it. Sister, where is Sir Thomas?
Mrs. Norris: Investigating with that Susan. I am sure he did say he wanted me to assist, not her.
Austen Fan Pastiche
Murder at Longbourn (Elizabeth Parker Mysteries 1) by Tracy Kiely
Elizabeth Parker, newly single for NYE, decides to attend the murder mystery night at her aunt Winnie’s new inn Longbourn. (They both are P&P fans.) But the game becomes very serious when one of the guests ends up very dead. The victim made many enemies, including Aunt Winnie, and even his wife and daughter aren’t sorry he’s dead.
Elizabeth is determined to steer suspicion away from her aunt, but ends up genuinely trying to solve the crime. The culprit is determined to remain free, no matter who stands in their way. Will she live to solve the crime?
This book is a solid cozy. The mystery works and Aunt Winnie and Elizabeth are well done characters, particularly Aunt Winnie. Negative descriptive words repeatedly used for heavier people, such as the word “beefy” applied to the main police detective bothered me. There are also some stereotypical attitudes about women and their looks and fashion choices. But I am planning to give another in the series a try.
Mrs. Bennet: This young woman is so resistant to a good match, just like our Elizabeth. Is it something about that name? Perhaps we could change it.
Mr. Bennet: If a different name can change someone’s behavior, I have some in mind for you and our younger daughters.
Pride and Prejudice Pastiche
Pride and Prescience (Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries 1) by Carrie Bebris
The newlywed Darcys feel displeased that Caroline Bingley chose their double wedding reception with the Bingleys to announce her engagement, then proceeded to dominate the conversation with it. But they are too happy to mind very much until they find out that the wedding occurs so soon that they must delay their return to Pemberley in order to attend.
Darcy and Elizabeth make the best of it at their townhome in London, but delays due to weather try their patience, as well as Caroline’s strange behavior. Starting from her very wedding night, she exhibits increasingly erratic and risky behavior, despite the obvious happiness of both bride and groom at their engagement and wedding.
Everyone continues to rearrange plans and returns to Netherfield to help Caroline recover, including Professor Randolph, a friend of the groom’s who specializes in the branch of archaeology concerning supernatural artifacts and talismans.
Events become even worse at Netherfield, but something just does not sit right with Elizabeth concerning Caroline’s illness. The others are beginning to think Caroline beyond hope and, whether Elizabeth agrees or not, someone dangerous is definitely operating at Netherfield. Until they find out who and why, no one is safe. Especially if supernatural powers are involved.
I liked this book very much and plan to read more of the series. The characters rang true to Austen’s originals and I found the plot engaging. Although I enjoy books with supernatural elements and did not mind it here (It’s folklore-type magic and used pretty sparingly.) it mixes a little uneasily with Austen’s characters and settings. I wonder if that aspect will continue in the series. But the Gothic romance-esque scenes were spot-on and very enjoyable.
Darcy: My wife will never let me forget this. I will never win an argument again.
Elizabeth: Did you ever win that much before, dearest?
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 on her website and follow her on Twitter.