As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future.
The ‘see also’ section below gives you a hint of the story, its themes, and its style, and is spoiler-free, but reviews themselves aren’t guaranteed to be thus!
If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.
These lists capture other detective/crime stories and characters that I thought of as I was reading this piece. I won’t explain why, to avoid spoilers, but they’re associations and not ‘if you liked this, then you’ll love…’ recommendations!
- Death Comes to Pemberley
- Her Father’s Name
- Mansfield Park (of course!)
- Can You Forgive Her?
Review (5 out of 5)
First, a confession. I am not a great Austen fan. I have read a few of the big names, but not Mansfield Park, from which Shepherd takes her inspiration. Fortunately, however, Shepherd is skilled enough that even the ill-informed reader (like me) cannot get lost, which can often be the case with works that rely on the canon for their premise. I appreciated that care for the breadth of audience.
Shepherd does a wonderful job of retaining Austen’s keen eye for the economic details of upper-class family life and the mechanics of these relationships. Modern readers often manage to miss the importance of these elements in Austen, and the acuity with which the material truths of women’s lives in the early-nineteenth century were drawn, so Shepherd has to work to maintain the subtlety of Austen-as-read-now in a modern version. Economics thus remains a quiet engine of plot, as in Austen’s novels.
The murder mystery at the heart of the story stops just shy of being too modern; a woman dead in the mud, stumbled over, sans wallet, feels very Law and Order: SVU. But it just about fits, and would not of course be out of place in a penny dreadful! The adjacent mysteries are more in keeping with our sense of C19 sensibilities, with poisoning and lunacy looming large, and the plot creeping closer to the genre of Sensation fiction as it progresses.
Perhaps because of that, and my own ignorance of the original’s specifics, I had all sorts of wild thoughts about the possible twists and turns. Might Mary and her brother turn out to be a fiendish married couple in disguise? Might we see an unwitting criminal, à la The Moonstone? But ultimately the novel stays true to the spirit of Austen’s conclusion, with everyone who remains learning a little about (romantic and familial) love and its follies and becoming a little sadder and wiser.
Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park was Book 42 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.