When George and Emma Knightley decide to throw a house party at their estate of Donwell Abbey, they had no idea of the shocking events that would unfold. The gathering certainly had an impressive guest list of family members and dear acquaintances in the Darcys, the Brandons, the Bertrams, and the Wentworths. The Darcys have also brought their oldest son, Jonathan, whose strict adherence to propriety could be said to rival his father. Completing the guests is Juliet Tilney, the daughter of Henry and Catherine, who is eager to experience the world outside of Northanger Abbey. As the guests begin to become comfortable with each other, they are surprised by the arrival of the vile Mr. Wickham. Since his seduction of Lydia Bennet, Wickham has continued down his path of evil, having swindled and blackmailed his way to a rather substantial fortune. In fact, every guest at the party has been victimized in some way, rather directly or indirectly, by this deplorable man. When Wickham’s body is discovered murdered by a fatal head wound, everyone is more relieved that upset. Magistrate Frank Churchill and the country folk surrounding the estate demand that justice be served and the murderer found. By the end of this novel, a beloved Austen character will be discovered to have murdered Mr. Wickham!
Fortunately, Churchill is not the only one investigating. As the only two guests not suspected of the crime, Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney form an unlikely alliance to uncover the truth. However, their partnership is one that is quite strained, given the young Darcy’s rigid and peculiar behaviors work at odds with the romantic and adventurous spirit of Miss Tilney. There are also matters of proper decorum. The two youngsters cannot be seen conversing without rumors that a courtship is taking place. Can Jonathan and Juliet solve the murder before an innocent person is sent to the gallows?
Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that I’m quite the avid Janeite. I also have a healthy obsession with cozy armchair mysteries. Does this novel manage to successfully merge the two in a beautiful and complete way? I’m happy to report that this novel was more a delight than a frustration. Move over Marvel Cinematic Universe, we now have the ALU, the Austen Literary Universe. This book contains the largest gathering of Austen characters ever assembled under one roof, some with starring roles and others as more of a supporting cast. For the most part, I thought the author did a fantastic job of developing the characters beyond the final page of their respective novels. I loved the way Darcy and Elizabeth were handled in the telling of their tragic backstory with Wickham and how it nearly destroyed their marriage. The Knightleys never fail to be charming, such as Emma resuming her need to play matchmaker, and her husband making witty jokes at the expense of Frank Churchill. Of all the couples in the novel, I thought Edmund and Fanny Bertram showed the most growth, having struggled to balance their faith with a secret involving Fanny’s brother William.
Unfortunately, such an ensemble of characters means someone will get left by the wayside when it comes to development. I didn’t like the way Captain Wentworth and Anne from my beloved Persuasion were handled. His minor flaws from the original novel were played up heavily here, so he just came across as annoying. Anne just seemed to fall into the background, behind some of Austen’s stronger heroines. I won’t criticize too heavily as I thought the author balanced the characters rather well, in addition to presenting them with some true domestic dilemmas. Claudia Gray also managed to insert some interesting critiques into the values of Jane Austen’s time, such as how homosexuality was viewed.
“She pushed the letter to the very edge–where his fingers deftly snatched it. The paper had vanished into his pocket before he reached the corner. I have corresponded with an unmarried man, Juliet thought. How unladylike. How unfortunate for public morals that being unladylike feels so . . . exciting.”
I think the author should be most commended in her creation of two exciting original characters. Jonathan Darcy, who clearly was on the spectrum, was portrayed with the utmost sensitivity. His struggle to understand human behaviors and social cues was handled in such a charming way. Juliet Tilney, who inherited her mother’s romantic nature but was much more levelheaded, still enjoyed that air of Gothic mystery, having to prowl around the estate in the dark of night. The interactions between these two were believable and quite endearing. My sincerest wish is that we have another adventure with these two in the near future.
I thought the mystery aspect of the novel was handled well. Considering it meant that a beloved Austen hero or heroine was guilty of murder, I was afraid the author would find some kind of loophole around it. I assure you that the ending was a satisfying one.
All in all, I enjoyed this chance to revisit Austen’s most endearing characters while attempting to figure out who among them rid the world of the most evil of villains. I would also like to thank my wife, a modern-day Austen heroine, for gifting me this book on our anniversary. She says it’s difficult when it comes to buying me a book, and I think she’s probably right. Fortunately, The Murder of Mr. Wickham hit all the right notes for me. While a familiarity with Austen’s novels isn’t required, I would highly recommend it, as it makes the reading experience even more exquisite. Murder and Austen go together just as perfectly as tea and biscuits.