About fifteen chapters later, I was still reading.
Barron's actually written 15 books since her stint at the CIA, and this one is intelligent, entertaining, and a classic puzzle mystery in the best English tradition. Way back in my past are a couple of years spent re-reading Georgette Heyer's best English Regency fiction, and Barron has the same knack for a clever protagonist with an irrepressible sense of humor and conviction under her constrictive clothing. This may not be the Jane Eyre you've pictured, but why not -- a spunky author who's defied her conventional brother in order to write her sharp-tongued and observant social-criticism-disguised-as-fiction, with an eccentric mother, and a passle of neighbors determined to enjoy the holiday season in spite of a heavy snowstorm. In face, in the first chapter, Jane, her mother, her sister, and her niece are victims of a carriage-and-wagon accident in the snowy night, and hence meet the elegant Raphael West, son of the noted artist Benjamin West (I looked them up; they were as real as Jane).
Despite her sense of reserve and a well-learned lesson in not trusting, Jane is drawn to West as a partner investigator, as deaths accumulate around them at a snow-struck country country manor:
"The ice on the lake is not yet thick enough to cut and stack in blocks in this room," Raphael West observed, "or we should not have found space to enter."Raphael West's response to Jane Austen begins a steady cascade of motives, to add to the means and opportunities she's analyzing. If her tiresome brother would just stop trying to clip her wings ... if society allowed her to wield her quick intelligence without female harness ... if her thoughts and creative work in her fiction could be applied to the situation at hand ...
"You were here when [XX] met his death?" I said stupidly. "Then you must have seen his murderer! Or --"
"--Or killed him myself." His gaze was satiric. "Pray believe, Miss Austen, that I did not." ...
I frowned in perplexity. "From the frank disclosures of your narrative, I am convinced you were sent here -- not solely by your father, but by the Admiralty. You were told to search The Vyne for a bolt-hole. What, then, is the object of your intrigues?"
In Barron's skilled storytelling, there's a way for all those possibilities to come to fruition, provided that Jane can protect herself and her family members, and of course her host, from further murders. And with a plot that dances briskly over the twelve days of traditional English celebration at year's end, both official and pagan, and a lively pace, this turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a mystery. I'm so glad I moved past my own initial reluctance, and discovered this author's strengths.
Of course, now I've got to go find some of Stephanie Barron's other mysteries! Who would have guessed a CIA analyst could turn English history into such a delightful adventure?!