I have something of a prejudice about all the Jane Austen (and beyond) sequels, prequels, re writes, fan fiction, industry – I’m not even sure what to call it, but whatever it is, it seems to be a rapidly growing sub genre so I wanted to put any bigotry of my own to one side and investigate a little bit. The root of this intolerance probably started with ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. I think I might have been a bit young when I read it, far too young to have grown out of the idea of Rochester as a romantic hero at any rate and it was all a bit above my head. And then I had a bad experience with an Emma Tennant – I think it was ‘Pemberley’, a reading experience so hideous I shudder to recall it.
Since then zombies and sea monsters have invaded and made themselves very much at home. For some reason I can look at a copy of ‘Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter’ and smile, but ‘Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ makes me almost froth at the mouth. It’s a lot to do with the marketing, which has been undeniably clever, but it frustrates me to see these books in ‘classics’ sections – the mash up thing is (I feel) a joke, not even a very sophisticated joke, but if you enjoy it that’s fine, it’s just not working for me. I suspect though that a healthy proportion of units shifted are destined not to be read – and I think that’s what bothers me most, these don’t entirely feel like books to be read but units to be sold, a cynical exercise in money making.
Perhaps you can guess that I approached ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ with a bit of baggage attached – idle to deny it, but I did make a real effort to come at it open minded and I was in exactly the mood for something light, fun, and slightly gory. It helped that ‘Mansfield Park’ is my least favourite Austen novel – I’ve read it only once, a long time ago, and frankly the details are very hazy. The end result is that I enjoyed this – with reservations. There’s a cracking heroine, a worthy victim (she really does deserve a crack over the head, and it’s hard to be sorry when she gets it), some excellent potential villains and villainesses, and an interesting detective. So far so good. I would need to re read ‘Mansfield Park’ to get a grip on exactly what Shepherd has done with it, but it’s safe to say she’s re worked or changed a lot – all good as far as I’m concerned, because the bits that seem furthest from Austen are the bits I liked most.
Approaching ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ from the murder side it’s pretty good (although annoyingly the questions for book groups section at the back has quite a few spoilers in it – a warning wouldn’t have gone amiss there). The detective (thief taker) Charles Maddox is a worthy addition to the genre, suitably dark, complex, and charismatic, Mary Crawford (the heroine) makes an excellent foil for him, and I couldn’t help but wish at times that the book I was reading was essentially their case book. Mary is a particularly likable heroine as well, intelligent, spirited, capable – and more than a suggestion of a good back story, all of which brings me round to another of the reasons I don’t think this genre is for me.
The first question in the reading group section asks if it’s legitimate to keep re working Austen in this way. Well if you want to why not, but the question I would ask in return is this – why set yourself up for comparison to Jane Austen, how many writers can really measure up to her? The language Shepherd uses is clearly meticulously researched, but I couldn’t help but feel there was something a little self conscious about it. It doesn’t always read as entirely natural, yet re reading ‘Persuasion’ a couple of weeks ago I was struck again at how fresh Austen’s prose is. The comparison to Jane makes me far more pedantic than I would normally be and that’s hardly fair on the book I’m reading. Another question that bothers me is this; why constrain yourself with someone else’s plot and characters?
If I was scoring this book (which I’m not really) it would be a 3.5 out of 5, I found it a very satisfactory page turner and I’m extremely hopeful that Shepherd will return to Maddox, taking care to provide him with a suitable replacement for Mary Crawford, but I’m equally hopeful that her next book will owe a bit less to Austen. I think she’s too good a writer to need to re work someone else’s vision. If however you don’t share all my prejudices and in fact actively enjoy re worked Austen I doubt you could do much better than ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’.