Jane Austen knock-offs have been popular for some time now, and I confess to a great curiosity about how many different ways that body of work can be mined and manipulated. Novels abound: Jane Austen Goes Batty, Rude Awakening of a Jane Austen Addict, Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Jane Austen Bites Back, Jane Vows Vengeance (part of the Jane AustenVampire Series), and Pride and Pry, billed as having a steamy paranormal twist.
So it was with great curiosity that I began Murder Most Austen. One thing became immediately clear to me: the author, Tracy Kiely, has a thorough and deep knowledge of and a strong affection for the Austen canon. Each chapter opens with an appropriate quote from an Austen novel. The heroine, Elizabeth, makes frequent reference to characters from Austen's novels, even quoting them on occasion. In an erudite tone and with wry wit that recalls Austen herself, Elizabeth offers astute observations of people, their appearance, their manners and speech, and most of all their foibles. The opening sentence sets the tone for the book, "If I had known that someone was going to kill the man sitting in 4B three days hence, I probably wouldn't have fantasized about doing the deed myself."
The setting is the annual Jane Austen Conference in Bath, England, and from the outset it's clear how seriously Janeites take their heroine, her works, and the period in which she lived. A promenade and a costume ball recreate the Regency period, while the conference itself consists of endless seminars on such subjects as "Dressing Mr. Darcy" or a session on Regency cosmetics (most of which contained lead). There is even a session, "Dueling Mr. Darcy," for which swords are kept in the Guildhall. Elizabeth, who has been involved in solving a few murders before and admits she is a practiced eavesdropper, and her outspoken, frequently acerbic Aunt Winnie have the misfortune to be on the same plane as a pompous Austen scholar (the man in 4B), who is one of those who specializes in ferreting out hidden meanings in works—meanings the author never intended. Richard Baines, traveling with a besotted student, plans to present a paper proposing that the author died not of Addison's disease as has generally been supposed but of syphilis, the result of a life of debauchery. Naturally, Austen's loyal fans are indignant, particularly an old friend of Aunt Winnie's named Cora who, with her daughter, has latched on to Winnie and Elizabeth. Cora particularly is an Austen figure—often confused, forgetful, always terribly aware of manners and afraid of offending anyone.
It's no surprise that Richard Baines is killed the night of the ball when almost everyone is dressed in identical Regency costumes—men as Mr. Darcy and women as Elizabeth Bennet. Cora is found passed out from too much liquor but even more damning, her Elizabeth Bennet wig is missing, and a wig and a bloody knife are found by Baines' body. From then on Winnie prods Elizabeth into clearing Cora and finding the real villain, though Winnie herself is as involved in solving the murder as is her niece. The story unfolds slowly at first. Readers accustomed to American cozies may find the action slow; Austen fans will probably delight in it. In early sections of the book, there is little action, only dialogue, most of it, granted, witty repartee but all of it with a slightly formal British restraint. The reader has stepped into another world, even if it is a contemporary re-enactment of a past period.
But after the murder, the pace picks up. By this time, the players in the game are many and most have a motive: Gail, the ex-wife; Ian, the seemingly doormat son, and his avaricious wife, Valerie; Lindsay, the besotted student who has a secret of her own; Byron, Baines research assistant; Cora, who did actually threaten Baines with harm if he presented that outrageous paper; Izzy, Cora's daughter who surprises everyone with a confession; and Alex, Baines' seemingly adoring wife. And new mysteries crop up—missing money, the "outrageous" paper stolen, a second death, and even infidelity and phone sex (among Janeites? Perhaps Baines' paper wasn't so far-fetched!). Regency costumes complicate everything, for no one is who they seem to be—as well it should be in a novel with echoes of Jane Austen. If Elizabeth and Winnie are going to solve this one, they have their hands full with this diverse cast of characters and long list of puzzling clues.
The climactic scene, when it comes, is full of action, complete with swashbuckling swords. I will leave it to the reader to decide if the end smacks a bit too much of deus ex machina.
Tracy Kiely has been a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. A self-proclaimed Anglophile who grew up reading Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, she lives with her husband and three children in Maryland. This is her fourth Austen novel featuring Elizabeth Parker. Visit her website.
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