Ever wondered what it would have been like if Jane Austen had turned her hand to murder?
Murder at Mansfield Park takes Austen’s masterpiece and turns it into a riveting murder story worthy of PD James or Agatha Christie. Just as in many classic English detective mysteries, this new novel opens with a group of characters in a country house setting, with passions running high, and simmering tensions beneath the elegant Regency surface. The arrival of the handsome and debonair Henry Crawford and his sister forces these tensions into the open, and sparks a chain of events that leads inexorably to violence and death.
Beautifully written, with an absolute faithfulness to the language in use at the time, Murder at Mansfield Park is both a good old-fashioned murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the very last page, and a sparklingly clever inversion of the original, which goes to the heart of many of the questions raised by Jane Austen’s text. Austen’s Mansfield Park is radically different from any of her other works, and much of the pleasure of Lynn Shepherd’s novel lies in the way it takes the characters and episodes in the original, and turns them into a lighter, sharper, and more playful book, with a new heroine at its centre – a heroine who owes far more to the lively and spirited Elizabeth Bennet, than the dreary and insipid Fanny Price.In Murder at Mansfield Park, Lynn Shepherd has taken Austen's notoriously least popular work and turned it on its head. Rather than take the typical approach and write a spin-off, where the story continues on or follows a minor character, Shepherd presents an alternate telling of the story, one in which downtrodden wet blanket Fanny is a pampered and officious heiress, and Julia Bertram seems to have more in common with the Fanny we know. Mary Crawford (one of my favorite characters in Austen, honestly) seems to share a backbone with Lizzie Bennet; she is a thinking woman, very aware of the follies and inconsistencies of the people around her. She is perhaps a bit more gentle than Lizzie, but she has something of the same spirit, and I think Shepherd succeeds in her goal of convincing the reader to just go with liking Mary and hating Fanny, which is something that creeps up on you when reading Mansfield Park.
But Murder at Mansfield Park isn't just a straight-forward alternate reality retelling of Austen's classic; it's also a full-blown whodunit murder mystery, with the country atmosphere and the self-absorbed people creating a sort of "Clue" atmosphere. I'm not sure that this book will be to the tastes of Jane purists (who would possibly gasp themselves into a swoon at some of the goings-on), but truly, the attention to detail in the language, and the character and world building are quite impressive. When I first sat down to review this, I started to say that this could have been it's own story independent of Jane, because so much is changed and wholly different than Jane's work. But I realized I didn't want to say that; it's not quite what I mean: the story does stand on its own, independent of Jane, however, I feel like having the known-Jane characters adds this fantastic layer that wouldn't be there otherwise. It's very clever and interesting, a neat little blending of Regency romance and murder most foul: as if Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a warped little lovechild. And if that doesn't have you intrigued, I have not done my job...
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