Thanks to NetGalley and Soho Press, I had the chance to read Stephanie Barron’s latest installment in her Jane Austen mystery series: Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Jane Austen, her mother, and her beloved sister Cass are trying to summon up their holiday spirit to spend Christmas of 1814 with Jane’s brother James at Steventon Parsonage. All three are determined to enjoy themselves, but James’s tendency to see any sort of revels as paganism and his wife Mary’s constant nervous complaints are sure to put a damper on their celebrations. So it comes as a delightful surprise when all the Austens are invited to spend Christmas day at the Vyne, the beautiful ancestral home of the wealthy and exceedingly kind Chute family. When a snowstorm strands all the Chutes’ visitors at the Vyne for several days, everyone is prepared to relax and enjoy Mrs. Chute’s plans for fine dinners, parlor games, and a Twelfth Night Ball. But the atmosphere shifts from festive to tragic when a military messenger to the Vyne is killed in a fall from his horse. Jane finds the circumstances surrounding this messenger’s death suspicious, and when she examines the scene of the accident, she realizes that she and her family are snowed in with a murderer. It’s up to Jane to convince her host to take her suspicion seriously and discover the murderer in their midst, because Jane suspects that another guest at the Vyne is danger as well.
I’ve never read any of Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries before, and evidently this is the 12th book in the series. I do love Jane Austen though, and mystery novels are my favorites. Sometimes starting a series after so many books are already published can be a bad thing – you feel lost with all the characters or backstories referenced that you don’t really know. But that wasn’t the case with this book. I feel like all you need is the most basic knowledge of Jane Austen, and you can pick right up where this book begins.
The mystery was definitely interesting. There is a fair amount of political detail involved, and Barron does a nice job of summarizing Napoleon’s exile to Elba and the British occupation of Washington D.C. without belaboring them. There are incidents of blackmail, mistaken identities, and love affairs, which all make the resolution more interesting. The only thing that was missing for me was a sense of urgency – I never really could get myself too worked up about whether the murderer would strike again.
Narrating your book from the perspective of such a popular and beloved author is a risky choice. For those of us who have read Jane Austen’s novels (and probably read them more than once), we already know what Jane’s voice sounds like. I thought Barron did a fairly consistent job of staying true to Austen’s tone and style, and there were a few gems in her writing that could have come straight out of Emma or Mansfield Park. Here’s a great example: “The little fever of envy, once caught, is the ruin of all happiness.” Also, there are funny moments when Jane has a realization about the people around her that she knows will make her a better writer. For example, when Mary is describing their Christmas at the Vyne to others, she tells the story as though she was “hounded by violence from first to last” and in immediate danger of being murdered at any moment. Jane thinks to herself: “It was a lesson in writerly humility. We are each the heroines of our own lives.”
If you like Regency mysteries, or Jane Austen adaptations, you should give this series a try. The first book in the series is Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.
And while we’re on the subject of Jane, this past Saturday, a crowd of more than 500 people turned out in Bath (where Austen lived for a few years) in Regency period dress. Their goal: break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people in Regency costume. It looks like they did it!