Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Two Literary Mysteries

I don't usually read mysteries, but I recently enjoyed two literary mysteries by Lynn Shepherd: The Solitary House, and Murder at Mansfield Park.  Shepherd is a literary mimic, and in these two books she takes on the writing style of the period from which each mystery takes place.

The Solitary House is creepy and violent and concerns pedophilia and sexual perversion; hardly the cozy sort of book I like, but once I started, I just had to find out how it would end.   I couldn't read this book at bedtime, and even so, I had a nightmare about it one night.  Consider yourself warned.

It's London in 1850, and Charles Maddox is a young private detective who is hired by a prominent lawyer to identify the person who has been sending threatening letters to one of his clients.  It seems straightforward, but underneath this simple request is a deeper mystery of violence and horror, which Charles uncovers, at great risk to his own safety.  For advice, he turns to his elderly uncle, also named Charles Maddox, who was a celebrated detective in his day.  Unfortunately, he is succumbing to dementia and has few lucid moments.

Shepherd draws on both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins for certain elements of the story.  Dickens' Inspector Bucket, a character in Bleak House, is a central character.  Since I haven't read Bleak House, I probably didn't fully appreciate this addition, but speaking strictly about The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket is an interesting character.  As the story reaches its conclusion, Shepherd tosses in some characters and elements from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which I have read.  To me, the story could have stood its own without them.  Shepherd also adopts Collins' fulsome Victorian writing style for the novel, which is not entirely successful, in my opinion.  A lot of the Amazon customer reviewers had issues with the writing too.  That said, The Solitary House is certainly an engrossing and suspenseful book and if you are a literary sort of person who likes to be scared out of your wits, it's a good choice for you.

Murder at Manfield Park was a much cozier mystery.  No nightmares were generated from this book. I have never had a problem with Fanny Price, but apparently she's a literary character that people love to hate. Shepherd cleverly takes advantage of that by having her murdered in this looking glass version of Mansfield Park.  The first several chapters are simply a re-telling of Austen's novel, only with a few details changed, mainly that Fanny Price, while exhibiting a mild and humble demeanor whenever in the presence of her elders, is actually a poisonous bitch.  Another difference between Shepherd's novel and Austen's is that Fanny is a rich orphan and heiress.  Meanwhile, Mary Crawford, one of the villains of Mansfield Park, is the sympathetic character in Murder at Mansfield Park.  The remaining characters are more or less the same as they are in Mansfield Park although Maria and Julia are more sympathetic and Edmund is Mrs. Norris' step-son instead of brother to the Bertrams.

The fun thing about Murder at Mansfield Park is that it's really hard to guess who the murderer is.  Most of the characters have a motive, but after reading about them for over 100 pages before the murder occurs, none of them seems like a murderer.  Almost everyone is a suspect at one point or another.  The elder Charles Maddox--the senile uncle from The Solitary House--is hired to solve the crime, which he does eventually, but even the great "thief taker" is on the wrong track for a while. Also, while we know all along that Fanny will be murdered (it says so in the blurb) there are two more shocking crimes that will surprise the reader.

I don't usually like Jane Austen knock-offs, but Murder at Mansfield Park was enormously entertaining, or, excessively diverting, as an Austen character would put it. It has made me want to reread Mansfield Park, to see if I have overlooked something in Fanny's character.  The book gets mixed reviews on Amazon, however, with many people outraged at this treatment of the esteemed Jane Austen.  It's true that the book isn't perfect.  As she did in The Solitary House, Shepherd uses a few self-indulgent literary tricks, for example having Mary Crawford read Sense & Sensibility.  Still, this is entirely forgivable since the novel is so much fun.


  1. I'm like you -- I don't usually read mysteries but these both sound good.

  2. Both of these sound highly entertaining. I do like a good mystery.

  3. I can't even read a book which has one of those attributes (creepy, violent, pedophilia, perversion), much less four in one book. The idea of a book that imitates Austen's style, though, sounds intriguing to me.

  4. I think I would like both of these books. I don't hate Fanny Price, but I found her character very uninteresting (and Mansfield Park is my least favorite Austen), so making her actually be a bitch sounds like an improvement.

  5. I totally want to read both of these--thanks for the recommendation! The one book that scared the bejeebers out of me years ago was An Absolute Gentleman. The main character was a serial killer and just waiting to find out who his victim would be--it was an intense kind of read.