Gentle readers, My dear friend Lady Anne has reviewed Tracy Kiely’s latest mystery, Murder Most Austen. As always, you will enjoy her take on a new book. I make my politest curtsy to her and thank her kindly for her services and for her elegant writing style. (Please note: the blue links are mine; other links are WordPress Ads I do not make money from this blog, but I do receive books from publishers for review.)
Murder Most Austen is the fourth book in Tracy Kiely’s series featuring Elizabeth Parker, a twenty-something Janeite who channels Kiely’s love and knowledge of Jane Austen’s books. Elizabeth and her Aunt Winnie, who was featured in the first of the series, often converse by trading quotes from Jane’s books. Readers with a good knowledge of Jane’s output will enjoy this indulgence in Austenology.
In this outing, Aunt Winnie, a former financier turned innkeeper, treats Elizabeth to a trip to England for the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Elizabeth, who had been underemployed as a fact checker for a weekly newspaper, has quit her demeaning job, is considering and reconsidering moving in with her boyfriend Peter, and seems to have matured some from the preceding books. While on the plane to Heathrow, she and Aunt Winnie, who is an outspoken and flamboyant contrast to her niece, meet two other travelers bound for the Festival, Richard Baines, a professor with some perverted views on Austen and his newest graduate student protégé, Lindsay. The odious Baines has taken the slenderest details of what he considers evidence and what most Austen readers call satire, and decided that Jane is anti-clerical, a non-believer, and further, that she was sexually profligate, early Communist and died from syphilis. Needless to say, most of the Janeites who hear him expound are upset, none more so that Aunt Winnie’s old friend Cora, one of those tiresome women who cannot leave an argument alone. So when Baines is found stabbed outside the ballroom where one of the Festival balls is taking place, Cora, who had argued too loudly and drunk too much, is the prime suspect in his death. Thus Elizabeth, along with Aunt Winnie, try to discover who really killed the arrogant Baines. There is no shortage of suspects: the ex-wife, son and daughter-in-law of Baines have strong motives, as do his current wife, his assistant, and that adoring graduate student.
Kiely is an engaging writer, who draws the reader in quickly, and keeps her pace brisk. She has a good ear for dialogue, which serves her well in establishing her characters and keeping her readers’ interest. Unfortunately, she is not as strong in setting her scenes. While she minutely describes the lobby and hotel room at Claridge’s, the iconic hotel in London, she has Aunt Winnie make reservations for high tea for the afternoon. Mistake! High tea, which sounds more elegant than tea, is not. It usually consists of baked beans on toast, perhaps an egg and fish paste sandwiches; it is a working class or nursery supper. Tea involves crumpets, scones, clotted cream, strawberries and other delights. That is presumably what the ladies had at Claridge’s, but we don’t get to join them.
Elizabeth and Winnie take a quick tourist turn through London and then proceed to Bath, but we do not get a good view of either place, which is disappointing to those of us who enjoy local color in our mysteries, or who have been there and look forward to experiencing those places through the characters’ eyes. This story could have equally well taken place at any of the regional Jane Austen celebrations in the U.S., for all the good Kiely made of being in Bath and London.
Mysteries turn on details; when well-done, they provide a clear picture of the lives of the characters: where they live, where they eat, what they do. These must be accurate and consistent. In Murder Most Austen, everyone uses cell phones throughout the book; in fact, the plot turns on the use of phones, and the cover illustration features a character in period dress talking on her cell. But as everyone who has traveled knows, American cell phones do not work abroad. The tourist needs to purchase a new phone and also get the appropriate sim card to hook into the networks in Europe. World-traveler Winnie would know this; Elizabeth would find it out. While they were out seeing the usual sights, they should have taken care of that necessary detail. Kiely could simply have included a little conversation among the cell phone users about getting their international phones. She does do a good job on the arrogant professor who tries to turn Jane 180 degrees from her usual perception by his mischaracterized “evidence.” It’s a nice poke at those academic furors that can rage for years, but it would have been another good skewer at him to associate him with an outlandishly named University. His unnamed school is another missing detail.
There is a certain amount of piling-on with the bad guys in Murder Most Austen, but Elizabeth solves the mystery with some good insight, and acquits herself nicely in a bit of swordplay as well. It is nice to see that she is not as flustered and unsure of herself as she appeared in previous books in the series; a smart and capable woman makes a good detective and is fun to continue to read. Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth’s earlier successes at crime-solving will like this one as well. Someone not previously acquainted with Elizabeth and her problem-solving skills – she does have an excellent memory for tiny details – will enjoy getting to know her.
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Minotaur Books (September 4, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1250007429
- ISBN-13: 978-1250007421
Order Murder Most Austen at Amazon or at MacMillan. (Vic adds her extreme disappointment at the cost of the Kindle edition. $12.00 is a steep price, when so many other Kindle books are listed for around $7-8. )
My blog’s reviews of all of Tracy’s murder mysteries: Click here