Classic authors have long been the inspiration for many a modern-day writer, but sometimes that inspiration goes even further, with the authors themselves cast in works of fiction. We’ve had Oscar Wilde stepping into Sherlock Holmes’ shoes in Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde Murder Mystery series, and more recently we’ve seen the Brontë sisters turn detective in Bella Ellis’ Victorian mystery, The Vanished Bride, and its subsequent sequels. Following in the footsteps of Stephanie Barron, who’s penned fourteen Jane Austen mysteries, Jessica Bull is the latest author to imagine a beloved writer playing the role of sleuth. This Austen might not have the detective skills to rival the fabled Poirot, Holmes or Marple, but she’s got the tenacity of all three combined, meaning she’ll do everything in her power to unmask the killer at the heart of Miss Austen Investigates.
When a young milliner’s body is discovered at a ball on a Hampshire estate, the genteel county is in uproar. For Jane, it’s personal. Not only is she acquainted with the victim, but her gentle brother, Georgy, is quickly accused of the murder. Jane might not be very worldly but, being a writer, she’s very good at observing the people around her and listening from the sidelines. With her brother facing transportation at best and execution at worst, Jane and her family must prove his unequivocal innocence. Which means discovering the real murderer’s means, motive, opportunity and – most importantly – their identity.
To unravel the mystery behind the woman’s death, Jane must first find out everything she can about the woman herself. Not an easy thing to do when the milliner isn’t local and doesn’t seem to have any family worried about her whereabouts. Complicating matters further is Jane’s place as a woman; she’s all too easily dismissed as being hysterical, her imagination over-active and her constitution frail. But being a woman has its advantages when it comes to sleuthing too. Nobody – except perhaps her family – expects Jane to persist in her dogged determination to clear her brother’s name. And nobody expects her to succeed either. Which is why it’s all the more satisfying when she does.
Violence and murder have no place in Jane’s safe, staid little world. And yet there Madame Renault lies, bludgeoned to death by someone who, by all accounts, cannot be too far away from where Jane is standing. Who, among Jane’s society, could have carried out this heinous crime?”
With a slower pace and a whodunnit that’s more in keeping with Midsummer Murders than Agatha Christie, Miss Austen Investigates is a historical murder mystery of the cosiest variety. Steeped in atmospheric late-18th century period detail, it paints an evocative image of Jane Austen’s home life with her parents and siblings; her brothers are given starring roles here, particularly placid Georgy and dashing Lieutenant Henry. In fact, the story surrounding Jane’s family dynamic and her dalliance with the charming Tom Lefroy is actually more compelling than the crime itself. I found myself wishing to draw out the scenes of Jane good-naturedly bantering with her brothers or flirting with Tom, instead of chasing down clues.
As a murder mystery, Miss Austen Investigates starts slow and doesn’t pick up until the second half, which moves along at a brisker pace and is all the better for it. But whilst the book takes a while to get going, and Jane’s frustrating tendency to simply shout accusations at every possible perpetrator until they explain their innocence doesn’t exactly scream ‘crafty sleuth’, there’s still enough intrigue to keep readers guessing until the end. The final chapters, in which the killer is revealed, are brilliantly dramatic and demonstrate Jane’s obstinate, headstrong side at its best. Austen had a clever mind and a sharp wit, as evidenced in her books, and Bull peppers the novel with some witty observations. However, a little more genuine detecting and less jumping to feverish conclusions would make Austen a more credible amateur detective as the series continues.
Richly detailed and entertaining in its fictional portrayal of Austen’s personal life, as well as her experiences as a young woman in a man-orientated time, Jessica Bull’s debut is certain to appeal to both Janeites and those wishing to learn more about the famous author in a cosy crime package.
Miss Austen Investigates was published by Michael Joseph on 25 January 2024