Posts Tagged ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’

Consider this recipe for a modern Austenesque mystery: Take a familiar and beloved novel, Mansfield Park, with characters whose motives and actions we know intimately, and tear the book up. Throw the pages inside a bag, shake vigorously, and let the characters and plot fall where they may. Add a writer who has cooked up a complex plot for a delicious murder (or two or more, who knows?), and you have Murder at Mansfield Park, a truly hearty and satisfying new mystery novel.

Lynn Shepherd, the chef of this roman à clef, has by dint of her imagination turned  Jane Austen’s classic novel topsy turvy. The characters’ names are familiar, the setting is the same, some of the action as originally described by Jane Austen has been retained, and yet Ms. Shepherd has managed to create something new, refreshing and different.

I must admit to disliking mysteries in general, as many regular readers of my blog know. And I tend not to review Jane Austen sequels. But this novel is different. Oh, I was skeptical at first, slogging through the first chapter, trying to wrap my mind around the changes in the characters. And then I got caught up in the plot and became absorbed to the point where I could not put the book down.

Some red herrings are thrown into the mix, but not so many as to make the reader angry. The plot’s denouement was more than satisfactory and made logical sense. I suppose a true mystery fan might have guessed the killer sooner. Truth be told I held off guessing, for I wanted to be surprised, and so I was.

That Murder at Mansfield Park is Lynn Shepherd’s first novel is most surprising. Her writing style is lovely and effortless as she weaves several plot elements into a seamless whole. Rather than copy Jane Austen, Ms. Shepherd uses Mansfield Park as a take-off point. This novel is intelligently written and assumes that the reader has some command of the English language and enough background knowledge in history, Jane Austen, and other subtle historical and social references to understand the numerous references that crop up.

I give Murder at Mansfield Park six regency fans, my highest rating ever.

Post script: Gentle reader – If you are curious to learn more about Lynn’s novel after reading my review, be forewarned. Many reviewers have spoiled the plot by giving away too much of Lynn’s changes while gushing about them. Honestly, does no one take Review a Novel 101 any more? One irresponsible reviewer of a major online news publication even gave away who was murdered, ignoring the fact that half the fun of this mystery is guessing who the victim will be. So be careful, wary reader, of careless reviewers who do not even bother to place *Spoiler Alert* at the top of their reviews.

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Inquiring Readers: Lynn Shepherd, author of  Murder at Mansfield Park, has written this guest post. She lives in in Berkshire, England, with her husband Simon. Murder at Mansfield Park is her first novel, but she’s been a professional copywriter for the last ten years. Going freelance in 2000 gave her the time she needed to see if she could make a dream into a reality. Ten years and two and a half unpublished novels later, it’s finally happened…

There were two big challenges in writing Murder at Mansfield Park, and they’re summed up in the title of the book. The first was creating an accurate and convincing version of Jane Austen’s own language and idiom, and the second (and in many ways the most fun) was producing an authentic Regency murder mystery.

When I started writing, I didn’t know very much about how a violent (and extremely aristocratic) killing would have been investigated in 1811, when the novel is set. I knew there was nothing we would now recognise as a police force –London didn’t get its first ‘bobbies’ until 1829, and the provinces were much later. But as I did more and more research, I realised that people who’d been the victims of a violent crime had precious few alternatives open to them – as one historian has said, the system at the time was extraordinarily ‘fragmented and inept’. There were the parish constables, of course, but this was often little more than an honorary position, and the elderly men who invariably performed the role would have been little or no use faced with a serious crime like rape or murder. So if you didn’t catch the perpetrator red-handed, your only real options were to post a reward for information in the local newspaper, or pay – very handsomely – for someone to conduct an investigation on your behalf.

This is where the ‘thief takers’ came in: private citizens functioning, in effect, as licensed bounty hunters. The profession – if we can call it that – dates back to the 17th century, when Parliament set a scale of ‘no win, no fee’ rewards for the apprehension of ‘most wanted’ criminals, such as coiners or highwaymen. At that time catching a highwayman was worth £40, and you also got to keep his money, weapons, and horse. Thief takers operated in the shadowy world between the criminals and the law, negotiating between thieves and their victims to return stolen goods for a fee (hence the name). The most famous and infamous of them all was the self-styled ‘Thief Taker General of England and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, who dominated London’s criminal underworld in the early 1720s. He set up an office where victims of robbery could register the details of their lost possessions, which Wild would then undertake to recover. But what many of his clients didn’t realise was that Wild was also running a very lucrative sideline as a receiver of stolen goods, so more often than not he either had their missing property himself already, or knew who did.

It may sound like nice work if you can get it, but thief taking was a notoriously dangerous undertaking – by the time he was hanged in 1725, Wild had two skull fractures and a plate in his head, and had survived having his throat cut. Wild’s notorious career was one of the main reasons why the thief taking system became so unpopular with more law-abiding citizenry – many people felt it caused more crime than it solved, and some thief takers even became ‘thief makers’ by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then informing on them and claiming the reward. But the bald fact was that English criminal justice couldn’t function without them – they got results even if their methods didn’t bear too much scrutiny.

It was this growing public dissatisfaction with the whole thief taking system that led directly to the founding of the Bow Street Runners in 1748. If Tom Jones is Henry Fielding’s great achievement as a novelist, the Runners were the equivalent for his career as a magistrate. Fielding started out as a group of half a dozen ‘official’ thief takers, who he would send out to track down and arrest culprits when a crime was reported. They would often travel across the country in pursuit of their quarries, and some occasionally got involved in solving crimes on the outskirts of London – in the 1780s half a dozen Runners were involved in arrests in Essex, and a Runner called Patrick McManus made £24 from 4 arrests (up to £2,500 in today’s money).

Lynn Shepherd, Author

Thanks largely to the establishment of the Runners, detection became a lot more professional in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1780s they had developed the sort of techniques we would recognize today, including interrogating witnesses, examining crime scenes, and checking alibis. They’re also known to have used ID parades, and to have traced offenders through lodging house receipts, or vehicle registration numbers! One of the more celebrated Runners, Charles Jealous, was even said to be able to tell country mud from city mud on a highwayman’s boots.

My Charles Maddox is a former Runner who’s set up a (very lucrative) business on his own account. He’s also a man very much after Jealous’s heart – more like a modern private investigator, than a thief taker in the strict sense of the term. All the same, he has a very different background and ethical code from the fine folk at Mansfield Park, and bursts upon the elegant Austen landscape with all the force of an asteroid hit…

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