After a career in TV production Helen Bettinson recently ditched a long commute around the M25 in order to concentrate on reading, and perhaps even writing, crime fiction.
It takes a brave, or more likely, foolhardy, writer to take on the mantle and legacy of Jane Austen, so beloved is the author and so numerous the ‘Janeites’ waiting to pounce. Fortunately debut novelist Lynn Shepherd has proved herself more than equal to the task, despite having made it even more difficult by picking what is commonly accepted as Austen’s least popular work.
In preparation for Murder at Mansfield Park I reread the original – it was as slow-going as I remembered it, and its heroine, Fanny Price, as prim and annoying. It was worth the effort, however, as it brilliantly brought out the wit of Shepherd’s reworking. Not only does she take the principal settings and characters and remodel them to suit her own agenda, but individual scenes and topics of conversation are recycled in a clever (though fortunately not too clever) homage to the original work. A discussion on the behaviour of young girls before and after coming ‘out’ is one such gem.
Shepherd’s Fanny Price, rather than the self-effacing prude of Jane Austen’s imagination, is an arrogant, petulant heiress. Her female cousins, by contrast, are the mousy and put-upon poor relations. The original Mary Crawford was scheming and unsympathetic, but in a master-stroke Shepherd makes her the heroine of the piece, with an intelligence to spark the ardour of one of the few new characters, Charles Maddox, the Thief-taker. There are sufficient red herrings to keep the identity of the murderer a surprise, and the revelation a satisfactory one. The result is a novel so much more entertaining and thrilling than the original.
My only concern is with this book’s intended audience. For whilst the publishers claim that it’s ‘a treat for Austen lovers and murder mystery aficionados alike’, I rather doubt the latter. For the pastiche is so note-perfect that only those readers who already enjoy the Austen style will take to it. Lynn Shepherd has reminded me, rather to my surprise, that I am one of them. I await, with interest, this talented writer’s next novel.