The Regency Detective, by David Lassman and Terence James – A Review

The Regency Detective, by David Lassman and Terence James (2013)From the desk of Stephanie Barron:

When the movie can’t help but be much better than the book:

A confession of my own, as I embark on this review: I write a series of mystery novels set in late-Georgian and Regency England, which feature Jane Austen as a detective. As a result, I might be regarded as a partial and prejudiced judge of The Regency Detective, a novel by the British screenwriting duo of David Lassman and Terence James (The History Press, 2013).  The pair are developing their story for British television, an honor I may receive only when hell freezes over, and they firmly state that the project is backed by the Bath City Council, Bath Film Office, Bath Tourism Plus, The Jane Austen Centre, and several other organizations too trivial to name throughout the city. A trifling note of bitterness on my part, or a waspish tone to this review, ought therefore to be acknowledged before being dismissed—because there are any number of authors publishing in this historical subgenre whom I wholeheartedly admire, read, and recommend. I love nothing better than a cracking good historical mystery set in England during Jane Austen’s lifetime. My hesitation to embrace The Regency Detective stems neither from its period, its engaging protagonist, nor its action plot—but from its truly turgid prose.  Having read nearly three hundred and twenty pages of it, I suggest that the movie version MUST be better.

But more about the prose later.

The Regency Detective opens in the autumn of 1803, when Jack Swann—a “consultant” to the Bow Street Runners in London—arrives in Bath for his adoptive mother’s funeral and a reunion with his “sister,” Mary Gardiner. (Many of the people in this novel are named for Jane Austen’s characters, apparently for the heck of it. Isabella Thorpe tries to pick up Jack Swann at a ball; Catherine Tilney is mentioned in conversation as having delivered her second child; Jane Austen’s mother sends a letter of condolence to Mary Gardiner, etc.) Jack’s father was once the Gardiner family’s butler; when he is knifed to death defending the Gardiners’ London home, Mr. Gardiner adopts twelve year-old Jack and makes him his heir, to the tune of “five or ten thousand a year.” The improbability of this premise is never questioned; it exists to provide psychological motivation for Jack Swann’s entire life. When we meet Swann in a Royal Mail coach bound for Bath (although most gentlemen of his fortune would travel post, with private changes of horses), Jack is thirty-two years old and has been hunting for his father’s killer for the past two decades.  He is prone to cite Rousseau and Hobbes, which suggests he has received a classical education, but is more comfortable sitting with the servants during a ball at Bath’s Upper Rooms. He is an Everyman with access to both the Lowly and the Great, which is handy for a guy who spends his days combatting Bath’s treacherous Irish-born criminal masses, who appear to control the city in much the way that Al Capone once controlled Chicago. Jack races through the Avon District, Bath’s slum; engages in knife fights; is shot at repeatedly; dons Sherlock Holmesian disguises to meet with his sidekicks in dubious taverns; and practices basic forensic science not recognized or developed for a hundred years after his death.

It turns out—spoiler alert—that Jack’s father’s killer has an identical twin, and Jack has been chasing the wrong one. Halfway through the book, we embark on what I assume is the second episode of the television series, which is about a possible serial/vampire killer, but not really.  There’s a female dwarf with a face disfigured by torture in a brothel. But she only makes a cameo appearance at the home of a writer who composes his Gothic novels while sitting in a coffin—a la John Donne—and who comments on a manuscript version of Austen’s Susan.  Jack’s sister Mary is being recruited by either a criminal organization run by her aunt, or a spy network—who could tell the difference, really, even in those days?—under the guise of being Emancipated as a Woman. Meanwhile, Mary has accepted a proposal of marriage from a fellow so dodgy even Emma Woodhouse would finger him for a creep. It all gets confusing, in The Regency Detective.

Add to that the infelicities of prose (one of the criminal horde “messes up in the city,” Mary tells Jack it “really means a lot” that he came to their mother’s funeral, Jack refers to himself as “paranoid” and asks Mary anxiously if she’s “okay,”), and you’ve got a bit of trudge through the ebook version of this tale. It’s almost worse when the authors get all Regency on us. (Never mind that the Regency officially began in 1811, not 1803.) We’re treated to such sentences as this: “For Swann, he could recognize a man outside a judicial building with no other reason for being there than as a malefactor.” Really? Wow. “Swann manoeuvred his sister away from the ensuing maelstrom which always accompanied the Royal Mail’s arrival, to a more conducive spot further up the street where they could converse easier.” Yes, easier. I’m not kidding.

I’m hoping that the persistent misspelling of a horse’s reins as “reigns,” and the ardent identification of Aphra Behn throughout this novel as Alphra Benn, are what are known as “scannos,” picked up in the digital formatting of the manuscript. But I have no real faith this is the case. On the plus side, author Terence James has lived in Bath for forty years, clearly loves the city, and offers a great deal of factual background in the middle of his action sequences. Which slows them down to stumbling point.

With any luck, when this series is filmed in Bath and broadcast on television, it will be a pulse-raising and visually delightful series to watch. With terrific costumes and interiors. But I suggest you wait for that day, dear reader. Don’t let this eBook spoil your fun.

-   Stephanie Barron is the author of eleven bestselling Jane Austen mysteries, including Jane and the Canterbury Tale, named one of the “9 Mysteries Every Thinking Woman Should Read” by Oprah Winfrey. She lives near Denver, Colorado where her roses grow thorns and no one need mend her pen. Visit her at her website and on Facebook.

The Regency Detective, David Lassman and Terence James
The History Press (2013)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0752486109

Cover image courtesy of The History Press © 2013; text Stephanie Barron ©2013, Austenprose.com

27 thoughts on “The Regency Detective, by David Lassman and Terence James – A Review

  1. Given that television shows based on books generally use books as a starting point, and rarely stick to the storyline (the oft-discussed visual vs. written), I won’t be surprised if the only resemblance will be Bath and the characters, which sound like the best parts of the book.

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  2. I enjoy good historical mysteries too, and I just hope the movie version is worth the price of a ticket. Thanks for reading this for us!

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  3. Kudos to you for battling through 320 pages if you found the prose turgid!

    It surprises me what books get selected for adaptation to the screen. For example, I’ve read many books in the Austenesque genre and enjoyed many of them immensely, but Death Comes to Pemberley I really struggled with because the characters were so flat, although the events were interesting. However I trust that the scriptwriters will sort this issue.

    I’ve read other books in this genre that I’d rather see adapted though. I appreciate that some books work better as books but some would adapt really well. I think it costs so much to adapt things that they have to be convinced that the programme will sell.

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    • Ceri, I particularly love the Sir John Fielding series by the late Bruce Alexander; the Sebastian St. Cyr books by C.S. Harris; the late, great Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel books. I also enjoyed T.F. Banks’ Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, two books on a subject similar to The Regency Detective, but far better written. I’m sure Laurel Ann can offer up a host of other mystery writers who specialize in this period. I’ve merely mentioned those that are not “Jane-specific,” as it were, but rather focused on the broader Georgian/Regency eras.
      Anyone else like to mention some favorites??

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      • I have your books on my wishlist and also Tracy Kiely’s, but I can’t see me getting the latter unless there’s a sale, they are quite a bit more than I’d usually pay. I will have a look at the other authors you mentioned, thank you.

        Re. What you’re saying re a bias against American writers, it wouldn’t surprise me if there is a grain of truth in that, particularly for historical settings. As a Brit you can often tell from the writing if the writer of a book hails from the other side of the Atlantic and it can be distracting but of course with an adaptation any misplaced words and figures of speech could be ironed out. I think there could also be some gender bias. I am not sure they think women can write genres other than romance. I wonder if a female author would have to be established and popular before they’d take the risk. P D James is obviously very well established.

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  4. I agree with Ceri! I would love to see other books of this genre adapted for the screen, large or small. From your review, waspish tone aside, the premise of this book is to create a mystery during the Regency period just to take advantage of the popularity of books written about the time. Both Bath and the period are very popular now…but it may be because I am looking for those type of books. How about some a series of Austenesque screen adaptation in a series. Debbie Macomber took knitting to Hallmark Channel why can’t we have Stephanie Barrons, Candice Hern, Abigail Reynolds and Regina Jeffers along with numerous others as a series. Someone should ask us.

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  5. You are so right, Stephanie. Maggie Griscom offered four distinguished notables, including yourself, for consideration in adapting the popularity of regency historicals to film and TV. Next time the powers-that-be trot out their intentions to offer this sort of media up, they ought to first consult you, the other notables mentioned, AND their crew of admiring readers first!

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    • Maggie and Jeffrey, that’s a lovely thought–but having written (nearly) 12 of these novels without the slightest interest from television, I have no illusions of silver screen grandeur! I think British TV, in particularly, automatically discounts American authors in this genre…

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  6. Wait a minute–someone’s commenting on the manuscript of Susan and yet Catherine Morland’s giving birth to her second child? Meta, you’re doing it wrong.

    He is an Everyman with access to both the Lowly and the Great, which is handy for a guy who spends his days combatting Bath’s treacherous Irish-born criminal masses, who appear to control the city in much the way that Al Capone once controlled Chicago.

    This explains the Dowager Lady Dalrymple’s big house in Laura-place. It’s obviously the center (or centre) of criminal activity in Bath. There’s your next JA Mystery, Stephanie. :-)

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  7. Here I thought reviewing books would be a blast but to have to endure reading a really bad book makes me think twice. The typographical errors would have driven me insane. It seems that he couldn’t make up his mind on what kind of book it was supposed to be, a mystery or a biographical one. Why the need to add so much historical information to the point of stalling the story is too much.

    Thanks for the review and saving me form buying this book. :-)

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    • Well, to be fair, I think the writing team originally penned these stories (there are really two within the book) as teleplays. They then did a “novelization” of the scripts. I imagine they thought that turning them into a book would be a snap. But turning ideas into truly readable novels is never all that easy. :)

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    • I mentioned a few in a reply above, Lori. Don’t miss Kate Ross’s books. She passed away tragically young of breast cancer, but she was a marvelous writer. If you like Georgette Heyer’s novels, you’ll love Kate’s.

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  8. I got so excited when I first saw this post. Keep in mind I just glanced at the title and saw the words “regency detective ” and “from the desk of Stephanie Barron”. Imagine my dismay when I found out it wasn’t another Jane Austen mystery by Stephanie. What a let down. I just finished reading those and am starving for more. If anyone can recommend more good Jane Austen mysteries please do. In the meanwhile, Stephanie, please write more. I loved them and was so sad when I read the last. Lord Harold has to be one of the BEST male characters ever and a perfect character opposite Jane. Be assured I will revisit this series but I need more.

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      • Thanks for the review and other recommendations. I need some good books to add to my “To Read” list. It seems they’re harder to find than they used to be. Thanks to your review I will be skipping this book.

        Also, great news about your next Jane novel. I’m so excited! But it’s so long to wait… On the plus side I should have plenty of time to enjoy the first eleven books again.

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      • Huzzah for Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Jane Austen is MY Regency detective.

        Thanks for the great (and hilarious to me) review Stephanie. As I am visiting Bath in a weeks time, I hope that I can enter the city “with impunity” from the two authors who may be aiming pistols at my backside.

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        • Having read The Regency Detective, Laurel Ann, I can recommend doorways as protection from gunfire. Apparently if you merely duck into one, all the bullets lodge harmlessly in the wood of the lintel.
          Not that the authors used the word lintel.
          Or note that most Bath doorways are framed in Portland stone.
          But that’s just me being a silly American, again. :)

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  9. Wow. That may be the best “I didn’t like it” book review I have ever read! Which is not surprising, given how much I enjoy your books, Ms. Barron. Thanks for brightening my afternoon with this! Not to mention saving me from ever reading this “book.”

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    • I bet Jane had a few good backhanded reviews. :) Thanks for reading my work. And have a great weekend reading whatever you please!

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  10. Stephanie, let me recommend a regency series that is superb. Both in plot and historicity, the Jane Austen mysteries by a great author named Barron really beats all the others. Yes, you forgot to recommend your own series which I and many others enjoyed immensely, even if you did kill the wonderfully complex Lord Harold. Keep it up, I’m looking forward for october 2014.

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  11. Stephanie, I do not understand why the powers that be have thus far neglected your delightful series. With Jane being at the pinnacle of popularity, I believe your character would, if at all possible, endear Jane to so many more. Sharing Jane’s life thru your novels has brought me and so many that I have shared your series with, true joy. I am delighted that in October of 2014 I will be able to continue my journey with Jane.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on “The Regency Detective”, they have spared me from a weekend wasted. Now I may choose a book that I know that I will relish: ANY of the Jane Austen Mystery novels. Please continue the excellent work!

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  12. Poor you for having to slog through such drivel. Thanks for the heads up– hopefully the tv series will be better– albeit the whole thing seems to hold little promise. Your review was entertaining; your pen is as sharp as a guillotine! How odd– tv series then write the book. Sounds like a money grab, marketing ploy. Might I add… am all anticipation for your next Jane Austen mystery.

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