Shepherd, Lynn - 'Murder at Mansfield Park'
As the title suggests, the book is set in the Mansfield Park of Jane Austen, and features all the same characters of that book (and even some brief mentions to characters in other Austen books). However, there the similarity ends. In this book, Fanny, the poor relation and gentle character of Jane Austen's book, is a beautiful rich heiress with a scheming, cruel personality. In contrast, Mary Crawford, the beautiful but relatively poor schemer of the original Mansfield part is now endowed with a personality more similar to that of the original Fanny, and she is the main heroine of this book.
The first half of the story describes the familiar, yet different characters in their new formats. It describes who has money, who doesn't, how each of the characters is gainfully employed, and how they are related to each other, and employs the 'Austen' style. However, there are quite a few differences to the original, so one quickly has to learn to forget the original book and go with the flow of the new one. But then I quickly became impatient to find out who is actually murdered (and not until page 161 do we find out). Thereafter, the second half of the book deals with the aftermath of the murder and the discovery of the murderer. Interestingly, the investigation is carried out by a 'thief-taker', a professional detective called Mr Maddox, who is commissioned by Tom Bertram, eldest son at Mansfield Park. As he and his team, start to look into the murder, a second murder takes place and very nearly a third until finally the identity of the murderer is revealed.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, particularly the second half, but I'm not sure that the book will necessarily appeal to Jane Austen fans. Austen's books, at least to me, are all about small social nuances, place in society, who will marry whom despite social differences, and the inevitable happy ending when the heroine finally marries the hero. But I actually found the mimicking of the Austen style, particularly in the first half of the book, to be occasionally irritating, even though aficionados of Austen will probably find spotting phrases from Mansfield Park, such as Henry's declaration of wanting to make Fanny "very much in love with him" amusing. The second half of the book is quite different as it focuses on the murder investigation. Murders bring everyone down to the same level, everyone is a suspect, social nuances go out of the window and the only 'happy' ending is discovering the murderer and bringing them to justice, although this book does also end with a marriage. The gradual uncovering of the murderer is skilfully done, the character of Mary Crawford is well written and she makes a fine heroine.
Towards the end of the book, Mr Maddox asks Mary to marry him, with the promise of a joint career in investigating crime. However, Mary decides to marry elsewhere for love, and I can't help but think this was a missed opportunity for a series of books with Mr and Mrs Maddox as professional investigators set in the late 18th century, rather than this one-off homage to Jane Austen and Mansfield Park. The description of the crime investigation is the real strength of this book, and the combination of Mr Maddox and Mary would have worked well. Ah well, at least we can enjoy them in this book.
Michelle Peckham, England