Although publishers long ago labeled Jane Austen-inspired pieces as “niche” literature, they erred. Austen’s touch can be found in a variety of pieces: women’s literature, romance, variations, historical fiction, paranormal, fantasy, and mystery. Over the years, I have written several cozy mysteries using Austen’s characters. It is easy to concoct a mystery story around her plots. Miss Austen provides us with a variety of starting points.
For example, without good reason, General Tilney sends Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey. He has no care for her safety upon the road alone. Meanwhile, his eldest son seduces Isabella Thorpe and then abandons her. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Wickham produces a multitude of lies that mislead Elizabeth Bennet and others in Meryton. He seduces innocents. He plots with Mrs. Younge. Frank Churchill pursues one woman while claiming a secret betrothal with another. Mr. Willoughby leads Marianne on. He abandons his pregnant mistress. Both actions occur because he must marry for money. Henry Crawford blatantly flirts with an engaged woman and then elopes with her. Tom Bertram is responsible for many of the major plot points that dominate the start of Mansfield Park. His gambling debts are part of the reason why his father, Sir Thomas, must go to Antigua to take care of his financial problems. Tom’s debts also mean that Edmund will not be able to move into the Parsonage at Mansfield Park when he is ordained. Mr. Elliot abused Mrs. Smith’s trust and later attempted to claim Anne to wife so he might prevent Sir Walter from remarrying and producing an heir to replace him. Austen offers her readers a “secret,” perhaps not a major crime, but one that can be employed be a skilled contemporary writer.
As the lady anticipated the modern romance, Austen also added to the mystery genre. The mystery/suspense plot requires the ending to be a restoring of order. Does not each of Austen’s heroines solve a “mystery” of sorts to bring her world to order? And is it not “love” that brings those involved together again and allows them to heal?
So how does one transform an Austen story to a mystery? P. D. James did as such in Death Comes to Pemberley. According to W. H. Auden in “The Guilty Vicarage” found in Harper’s Magazine (from a 1948 article), a mystery/detective story requires ” (1) A closed society so that the possibility of an outside murderer (and hence of the society being totally innocent) is excluded; and a closely related society so that all its members are potentially suspect (cf. the thriller, which requires an open society in which any stranger may be a friend or enemy in disguise). Such conditions are met by: (a) the group of blood relatives (the Christmas dinner in the country house); (b) the closely knit geographical group (the old world village); (c) the occupational group (the theatrical company); (d) the group isolated by the neutral place (the Pullman car).
“In this last type the concealment-manifestation formula applies not only to the murder but also to the relations between the members of the group who first appear to be strangers to each other, but are later found to be related. (2) It must appear to be an innocent society in a state of grace, i.e., a society where there is no need of the law, no contradiction between the aesthetic individual and the ethical universal, and where murder, therefore, is the unheard-of act which precipitates a crisis (for it reveals that some member has fallen and is no longer in a state of grace). The law becomes a reality and for a time all must live in its shadow, till the fallen one is identified. With his arrest, innocence is restored, and the law retires forever.The characters in a detective story should, therefore, be eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (instinctively ethical) — good, that is, either in appearance, later shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appearance of bad.”
Let us check off the requirements as they relate to Austen’s books: a closed society (✓); a closely related society, that of a village (✓); the appearance of an innocent society (✓); and a society where there is no need of the law (✓). Auden goes on to explain how “rituals” characterize the closed society and that the perpetrator of the “crimes” uses his knowledge of the rituals to take advantage of the community. Auden also suggests that the plot must include an individual of superior intelligence to solve the mystery and reset the harmony within the society. Look at Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. He uses his knowledge of the more lax care of innocents at seaside resorts so he might attempt to seduce Georgiana Darcy (at Ramsgate) and successfully compromise Lydia Bennet (at Brighton). It is only with Fitzwilliam Darcy’s knowledge of Mr. Wickham’s propensity for debauchery and the man’s cohorts that the Bennets’ world is restored.
Auden, W. H. “The Guilty Vicarage.” 1948. Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Robin W. Winks, Editor. Woodstock Foul Play, 1980. 15-24.
Check out my mysteries based around Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
The Phantom of Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery
HAPPILY MARRIED for over a year and more in love than ever, Darcy and Elizabeth can’t imagine anything interrupting their bliss-filled days. Then an intense snowstorm strands a group of travelers at Pemberley, and terrifying accidents and mysterious deaths begin to plague the manor. Everyone seems convinced that it is the work of a phantom-a Shadow Man who is haunting the Darcy family’s grand estate.
Darcy and Elizabeth believe the truth is much more menacing and that someone is trying to murder them. But Pemberley is filled with family guests as well as the unexpected travelers-any one of whom could be the culprit-so unraveling the mystery of the murderer’s identity forces the newlyweds to trust each other’s strengths and work together.
Written in the style of the era and including Austen’s romantic playfulness and sardonic humor, this suspense-packed sequel to Pride and Prejudice recasts Darcy and Elizabeth as a husband-and-wife detective team who must solve the mystery at Pemberley and catch the murderer-before it’s too late.
The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery
A THRILLING NOVEL OF MALICIOUS VILLAINS, DRAMATIC REVELATIONS, AND HEROIC GESTURES THAT STAYS TRUE TO AUSTEN’S STYLE
SHACKLED IN THE DUNGEON of a macabre castle with no recollection of her past, a young woman finds herself falling in love with her captor-the estate’s master. Trusting him before she regains her memory and unravels the castle’s wicked truths would be a catastrophe.
Far away at Pemberley, the Darcys happily gather to celebrate the marriage of Kitty Bennet. But a dark cloud sweeps through the festivities: Georgiana has disappeared without a trace. Upon receiving word of his sister’s likely demise, Darcy and Elizabeth set off across the English countryside, seeking answers in the unfamiliar and menacing Scottish moors.
How can Darcy keep his sister safe from the most sinister threat she has ever faced when he doesn’t even know if she’s alive? True to Austen’s style and rife with malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, this suspense-packed mystery places Darcy and Elizabeth in the most harrowing situation they have ever faced- finding Georgiana before it’s too late.
The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery
A THRILLING STORY OF MURDER AND BETRAYAL FILLED WITH THE SCANDAL, WIT AND INTRIGUE CHARACTERISTIC OF AUSTEN’S CLASSIC NOVELS
Fitzwilliam Darcy is devastated. The joy of his recent wedding has been cut short by the news of the sudden death of his father’s beloved cousin, Samuel Darcy. Elizabeth and Darcy travel to Dorset, a popular Regency resort area, to pay their respects to the well-traveled and eccentric Samuel. But this is no summer holiday. Danger bubbles beneath Dorset’s peaceful surface as strange and foreboding events begin to occur. Several of Samuel’s ancient treasures go missing, and then his body itself disappears. As Darcy and Elizabeth investigate this mystery and unravel its tangled ties to the haunting legends of Dark Dorset, the legendary couple’s love is put to the test when sinister forces strike close to home. Some secrets should remain secrets, but Darcy will do all he can to find answers-even if it means meeting his own end in the damp depths of a newly dug grave.
With malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy will keep Austen fans turning the pages right up until its dramatic conclusion.
The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery (Mystery/Suspense/Thriller; Fiction/Historical Fiction)
Fitzwilliam Darcy is enjoying his marital bliss. His wife, the former Elizabeth Bennet, presented him two sons and a world of contentment. All is well until Darcy receives a note of urgency from his sister Georgiana. In truth, Darcy never fully approved of Georgiana’s joining with their cousin. Major General Edward Fitzwilliam for Darcy assumed the major general held Georgiana at arm’s length, dooming Darcy’s sister to a life of unhappiness.
Forced to seek his cousin in the slews of London’s underbelly, at length, Darcy discovers the major general and returns Fitzwilliam to his family. Even so, the Darcy’s troubles are far from over. During the major general’s absence from home, witnesses note Fitzwilliam’s presence in the area of two horrific murders. When Edward Fitzwilliam is arrested for the crimes, Darcy must discover the real culprit before his cousin is hanged for the crimes and the Fitzwilliam name is marked by shame.
Mystery is my favourite genre and then if you add Jane Austen it would be perfect, but really disliked P D James’ attempt.
The BBC version was better than the novel. I, too, was sorely disappointed in the James tale.
I didn’t like the Death Comes to Pemberley book either. I thought Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale was beyond amazing and the Pride & Prescience (Or a Truth Universally Acknowledged) was pretty good.
I appreciate the other recommendations. I have not read Midnight in Austenland. I must check it out.