Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Jane Austen, Detective

I must have read the novels of Stephanie Barron not long before I began this blog. Had Ghulf Genes been running at that time, I’m sure I would have noted her name and her delightful novels already. Stephanie Barron is the pseudonym of Francine Matthews, a woman with a fascinating career. She is a scholar (history), a one-time CIA analyst—but above all a very fine novelist. Her Jane Austen books generally follow Jane Austen’s life chronologically; the mysteries take place in the places where Austen lived or vacationed, and its characters include members of her family, people she knew, and, of course, characters invented by Stephanie.

I came across her work in my on-and-off life’s hobby of discovering mystery writers I really like. I approached this series with a great deal of apprehension. I discovered these detective novels while looking deeper into Jane Austen’s life after another period (which also repeats at roughly nine-year intervals) of rereading Austen. “Well,” I thought, “it’s probably a waste, but what the hell. Read one.” I was immediately captured, charmed, indeed surprised—and never regretted setting off on the venture. The list of Stephanie Barron's mysteries, a serious body of work, follows:

1. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (1996)
2. Jane and the Man of the Cloth (1997)
3. Jane and the Wandering Eye (1998)
4. Jane and the Genius of the Place (1999)
5. Jane and the Stillroom Maid (2000)
6. Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House (2001)
7. Jane and the Ghosts of Netley (2003)
8. Jane and His Lordship's Legacy (2005)
9. Jane and the Barque of Frailty (2006)
10. Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (2010)

Why now? I’ve become weary of reading so-called serious books, needed a change of atmospherics, and therefore began another search for yet another mystery author. I think I’ve also succeeded, but I'll write about the new author I stumbled across at some other time. The current search reminded me of the last one.

Francine Matthews, under that, her real, name also writes modern thrillers. I’ve looked at these as well but had the same curious response I’d had to reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. That novel is the strangest amalgam of magic and brutality I’ve ever encountered. Two thirds of it takes place in the past and is illuminated by a mysterious spirit. In the last third we are suddenly in modern times, and everything changes with such a gritty brutality that I found it difficult to finish the book. Now, of course, this may have been intended… Years later I chanced across Allende’s The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir. This book has essentially the same content as The House of the Spirits, but, written as a memoir, it is understated and oddly much better structured than the fictional version. A round-about way of saying that the spiritual element is much stronger in Matthews’—as in Allende’s—work when reality is seen at a greater distance and the raw texture of the everyday has been transformed by distance and reflection into meaning.

1 comment:

  1. Arsen, I can't remember. Have you read any of the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout? If not, I'll loan you one. I think you'd enjoy them.

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