Monday, 18 July 2011

'Murder at Mansfield Park' - Lynn Shepherd

Murder at Mansfield Park is a retelling of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Lynn Shepherd has turned the classic into a murder mystery. I really liked the blurb for the book, which promises passion and intrigue all set in the beautiful English country side. After all the fantasy and Sci-Fi I've been reading lately, it was time for something a little bit different. Beautiful Books kindly provided me with a review copy of Murder at Mansfield Park.

It all begins with three sisters. One after another, each sister marries a rich husband. Maria, the oldest sister, marries Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park.  Alas, the sisters’ lot in life is not to live happily ever after with their husbands. Only Maria is spared. One sister dies along with her husband and the husband of the youngest sister also passes away. The remaining sister, Mrs Norris, moves into Mansfield Park along with her son, Edmond Norris. When both her parents die, Fanny Price joins her cousins at Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is well aware of her beauty and wealth and the social status this grants her. The ambitious Mrs Norris immediately spots a kindred spirit in the young Fanny Price and takes her under her wing. Not out of any motherly feelings however.  She has plans for the young lady.

We leave Mansfield Park for many years and upon our return, much has happened. Mrs Norris has secured an engagement between her son and Fanny Price. William, the youngest son of Sir Thomas Bertram and Maria, is going away on a long sea voyage, much to the distress of his mother and sisters. To keep the family distracted, Sir Bertram has planned some major landscaping work for the grounds of Mansfield Park. As it happens the brother in law, Henry Crawford, of the reverend Dr. Grant has done this kind of work. Sir Thomas Bertram enquired about Henry Crawford's reputation and character and was very satisfied. Mr. Crawford and his sister Mary are both en-route to stay at the parsonage with Dr. Grant while Henry Crawford is busy with his work at Mansfield Park. This is really Mary’s story from now on. As the plot unfolds, she will play an increasingly important role, both in a social aspect and also in assisting with solving the murder.

Henry and Mary are both quite a lot lower on the social ladder than the other youngsters at Mansfield Park. Both however, are attractive and intelligent and their relation to the reverend gives them some access to the social life at Mansfield Park. With so many young and unmarried men and women in one place romance is, of course, inevitable. To further complicate the romantic intrigue, a young bachelor with more money than sense moves in to a neighbouring property. Fanny Price's true nature is becoming more obvious to her fiance, Edmond Norris, and her other cousins.

Hold on, I thought you said this was a murder mystery, not a romantic costume drama. Patience, young grasshopper. The first half of the book is indeed very lacking in murder, gore and general mayhem. However, it does a great job of introducing the characters and the relationships between them. Mary Crawford, our heroine, being of lesser social status, fights an uphill battle here. She is constantly being set upon by Fanny Price and has to suffer abuse. It's a lot of verbal fencing between the two and it makes it even more funny as Fanny Price does not take notice when Mary Crawford makes her verbal riposte. It does not occur to her that Mary would dare.

Lynn Shepherd has written the whole book using language that suits time period. It's all terribly charming. Ms. Shepherd has also done a good job with the characters' behaviour. The ladies swoon a lot and everybody in general seems very sensitive to bad news. Men with whom the women are not well acquainted with are usually introduced with how much money they have. The men, not being any better, talk about dowries. The characters clearly struggle against the social constraints at times. A person's reputation and character is very important and it's better to suffer a small slight than put one’s reputation in jeopardy.
Maddox smiled to himself - These fine ladies and gentlemen! It was not the first time that he had seen one of their class imprisoned by the iron constraints of politeness and decorum.
Murder at Mansfield Park was a real delight to read. It's such a quaint setting with some very charming characters. Lynn Shepherd has done a good job in capturing the ambiance of that era. Although she makes it clear that this time is really a man's world, I found the women of Mansfield Park to be the stronger characters. The men quickly took on supporting roles. They react to the actions of the women and help nudge the plot forward. This helped, as many of the characters were very quickly introduced at the start of the book and it was somewhat overwhelming.

It was a very refreshing read partly because it's so different from the books I normally enjoy. I can see now why another reviewer recommended I vary the genres, imprints and authors I read as much as possible. The actual murder mystery part of the book worked well, no great surprises really. It does the job, no more, no less. In the second part of the book, a thief taker is called in from London to assist in apprehending the murderer. The thief taker along with Mary Crawford apply their intellect and cunning to the problem. They go about it in a style that reminds of me of Holmes and Poirot. It's the sleuths that reveals the clues to the reader, not the narrative. One suspect after the other is eliminated and then the next is examined.

I'm not sure if I find it completely convincing how quickly Mary Crawford wins over everyone's trust. It was a little like we were simply being told she was amazing instead of her actually doing anything amazing. What I did find convincing though, was the emotions expressed by the characters and even I had a goosebumps moment. I'm a sucker for happiness.

Murder at Mansfield Park weighs in at 368 pages and is published by Beautiful Books.

Recommendation: read

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