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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Jane Austen, partner in crime

While much Jane Austen-inspired fiction can be classed as romance, a thriving subset draws on the conventions of the mystery genre.

 

Sometimes the books inhabit an Austenesque universe, without directly referencing Austen’s novels, like the works of Anna Dean and Julia Seales. Sometimes they feature Austen herself as a crime-solving sleuth, as in the series by Stephanie Barron and Jessica Bull. And sometimes they turn Austen’s characters into victims, perpetrators, or detectives, as in Carrie Bebris’ “Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mysteries” or Claudia Gray’s “Mr. Darcy and Miss Tilney” series.


Why Austen lends herself to this kind of thing is anyone's guess, though it's often been suggested that her subtle, precise observation of behavior and psychology is a skill that any detective might find useful. (The British mystery writer P.D. James famously called Emma a detective story whose central mystery, marked by an array of clues, is the hidden relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.)

 

Whatever the explanation, the Austen mystery train shows no sign of slowing down. On Thursday, a New Orleans bookstore is marking the launch of the third installment (in two years!) of Gray’s series by hosting the author, a homegrown talent, at a party featuring “an escape-room style mystery." In other words, this is an event I would totally be attending if I lived anywhere close to Louisiana.

 

I haven’t read all the Austenesque mysteries I mentioned above—though if the pseudonymous Anna Dean ever publishes another, I will be first in line—but I seem to have gotten hooked on Gray’s, which take place some years after the conclusion of Austen’s novels, in an Austenworld mashup where Emma and George Knightley can host a house party attended by the Darcys, the Wentworths, and the Brandons.


Gray forthrightly kills off nasty Austen characters and occasionally involves nice ones in serious unpleasantness, but her protagonists are her own creations: Juliet Tilney (daughter of Henry and Catherine), and Jonathan Darcy (son of Elizabeth and Fitzwillam).

 

I can’t say I love these books: The Austen-pastiche writing is uneven, and as is too often the case with mysteries written by Kids These Days, the plotting tends to the thin and perfunctory, a far cry from the intricately worked out puzzles of Agatha Christie’s time. But I’ve become quite fond of the sleuthing central couple—Jonathan, even more socially awkward than his father, falls on the autism spectrum, and Juliet, as nosy and vivacious as her mother, is a kind and supportive friend.

 

It’s pretty clear these two will end up together, and by the end of Book 2 I was getting a tad impatient with the increasingly convoluted authorial machinations required to keep the inevitable from occurring too soon. But hey—I’ve pre-ordered Book 3, so obviously Gray must be doing something right.

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