Monday, February 01, 2016

New Jane Austen Mystery -- THE WATERLOO MAP, Stephanie Barron

Have you ever enjoyed a Sherlock Holmes appearance in a TV program or film? If so, you already know the most important part about Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries: This Jane can't be the same as the one you know from reading Austen's own writing in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. But the parallels are close enough for pleasure. And by unbinding the character into an amateur sleuth who's also an early feminist and eager author, Barron's created a lively protagonist for her thoroughly enjoyable British period mysteries.

There are already 12 others in this series, which is good news in two directions -- you have plenty of other titles to gather later on if (like me) you find you're delighted by THE WATERLOO MAP.  (I liked the title before this one, too. A lot.) And if you've been reading the series already, here's a delicious adventure to plunge into, keeping in mind Jane's trials and tribulations from the earlier books. Among those -- and deftly reviewed by the author to bring new readers up to speed -- are Jane's obnoxious and pompous brother who can't stand her writing or her independence, the women friends and relatives who admire and support what she's doing, and a guilty romantic attachment to the painter Raphael West (a real historic personage worth knowing about), who keeps crossing Jane's path.

This time, her journey takes her reluctantly into the London home of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, who keeps a full set of Jane's works, handsomely bound, in each of his residences. And the royal personage wants Jane to visit his library at Carleton House ... maybe even to write something while there! ... and add to his prestige. Jane's not a fan: "There are few people of whom I think less than the Prince Regent. His entire history is either foolish or despicable." But the invitation can't be declined, and with a sigh, Jane concedes her calendar to the Regent's pleasure. At least, for one day!

That visit turns out to plunge her into crime-solving, as a hero of the recently concluded battle at Waterloo dies in the library, at her feet. Thanks to her insight, the "natural" (if unexpected) death is quickly and quietly recognized as murder. One mustn't offend the Regent, of course! But Colonel MacFarland of the Scots Greys cavalry is also too important to have his death overlooked. Jane's evidence is crucial to the court doctor:
"I will be forced to anatomise MacFarland now," the doctor mused ... "if it is a matter of murder..."

There. He had uttered the word aloud.

"Suicide is not to be thought of?" Raphael West asked.

"I should have said the Colonel had everything to live for," Baillie replied simply. "He was a Hero, recollect."

I met West's eyes. How had he earned that honor?  And might one man's reputation, be another man's shame?
Jane's probing into the heroics of the battle that everyone in England admires is far from welcome, and the Hero's widow has every reason to be furious with any assault on her husband's career. Should Jane back away from it all? Friendship and honor pull her forward instead.

This well-spun, entertaining "traditional" mystery is costumed in an era of ritual, class, and significant moments. In Stephanie Barron's hands, the setting is an added delight, forcing Jane to tackle the social forces that prevent women from taking bold action. Secrets, revelations, and further crimes unfurl.

If February's a tough time for you, great news -- the book's release date is February 2, and it's much more fun than watching for that funny old groundhog! If you can't make time for a midwinter reading binge, you can still scoop up a first edition from Soho Crime and let the pleasure of reading it wait for the right moment. Barron's website doesn't give her tour dates, but there are plentiful resources on Jane Austen, and maybe the best part of the site is discovering how this former CIA intelligence analyst tumbled into, shall we say, channeling one of the wittiest women of the Regency period.

A bit more modern than a Georgette Heyer mystery, but very close in flavor to Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, and to Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes adventures, THE WATERLOO MAP makes it onto my shelf for "keep and re-read." We deserve to enjoy this much fun!

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