Stephanie Barron •
Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor •
What if the author of Pride and Prejudice had turned her keen eye and sharp wits to detective work? That’s the premise of an addictive series of novels by Stephanie Barron, presented as journal entries and letters from the pen of Jane Austen.
The voice is eerily reminiscent of Austen’s, with all the verbal flourishes of that era (“Singular? It is insupportable!”). But the books are neither parodies nor imitations. Rather, they’re extremely well executed mysteries full of period flavor and fascinating entanglements. The supporting cast of Austen’s personal life is there too, notably her beloved sister and confidante, Cassandra.
“Unpleasantness” here is a euphemism for murder, imprisonment, and hanging. Isobel Payne has been charged in the death of her much older husband, and appeals to Jane to prove her innocence. Limited as she is by the conventions of her day, the ladylike Jane can hardly go barging around with a lantern and a pistol. Instead, she gleans intelligence from conversation and observation, the two major avenues open to her in detection.
Not that the stories are short on action. In the course of the series Jane visits gaols (appalling), finds herself in a smugglers’ cave (terrifying), and falls for a “gentleman rogue” (thrilling but heartbreaking). Barron has done a thorough job of historical research, and adds an occasional footnote to illuminate a point such as the use of pattens or the date of Jane’s removal to Bath.
The combination of Austen’s narrative style with a highly charged plot makes Unpleasantness irresistible to mystery fans and Janeites alike. The cover illustration carries the mood perfectly: Austen in a dainty cap, head bent demurely over a page, while blood drips from her quill pen into the shape of a skull. Delicious.