Release date: 3 May 2022
Synopsis: A summer house party turns into a whodunit when Mr. Wickham, one of literature’s most notorious villains, meets a sudden and suspicious end in this mystery featuring Jane Austen’s leading literary characters.
The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a house party, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.
Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. The unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang.
Having read some of Gray’s work before this, and having enjoyed said readings, I had high hopes for this novel. I quite like Austen, and I enjoy Regency-era stories, but Gray’s newest combination of the two in a post-Austen, Star-Wars-sequels kind of epilogue disappointed me in more ways than I expected.
While the plot intrigues, with its very satisfying whodunnit about who murdered the villain of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. George Wickham (as if anyone in the narrative cares, as he has postscriptedly wronged nearly every Austen character present in the book), it also suffers from a dose of hefty imposition of the past by modern morals, beliefs, and practices.
Up until about 45% of the way through the book, I was vibing so well with this book that I couldn’t believe I had found a trade book recently published with some period accuracy and fun plot devices mixed with some of my favorite classic stories and one of my historical periods of history to read about (that isn’t fantasy). After that just-about-halfway point, my hopes started just leaping out my head and sending up mayday signals. Nearly every inner monologue began to be riddled with commentary about what’s wrong with any given social propriety known to the Regency era, among other things, and soon the story turns from an initially enjoyable fan-rewarding romp to a one-sided lecture hall debate on how people should really be allowed to behave. While some of these points I agree with, I don’t feel these preachy intrusions did anything to support the novel in its capacity as a sequelesque, fun whodunnit. If I wanted the commentary, I would have picked up one of my Broadview editions from grad school and read the appendices again. Blech.
Along with the appearance of commentary comes a very long, drawn-out plot drag plaguing the middle of the book, joined by some obligatory nods to the typical events and tropes that accompany all Austen novels. In this book, we have the ball, the church scene (complete with snubbing), the walk through town (also complete with snubbing), miscommunication, cherry-picking and misinterpretation of Scripture by clergy who aren’t really Christian but chose the profession to avoid military service because they aren’t the firstborn sons, class disparity between two young folks who think they may have some kind of confusing feelings for each other, jealousy over an additional potential love interest, etc.
Aside from what I hated about the book, I did enjoy some of it. The mystery is essentially a circumstantial mishmash of all major Austen romantic couples in a month-long house party at the Donwell Abbey, at which Wickham shows up uninvited and unannounced like a case of hives. His presence goes over so well, someone in the estate seemingly murders him, and the progeny of the Darcys, Jonathan, along with a plucky, untitled young lady named Juliet, proceed to investigate the murder because the person whose job it is (Frank Churchill!) seems to immediately suspect the lower class folks instead of entertaining any possibility of a nobleman being a murderer. I wasn’t able to guess who actually did it, though I’m not sure I was really trying to but just endeavoring to slog through the story and get it read and done.
2.5 stars. I was just too much in a hurry to get the book over with and ended up not really caring who the killer was. It’s a shame, as the premise and subject matter should have made this a shoe-in for a 4-to-5-star read for me. Oh, well.