It is a truth universally acknowledged that in Carrie Bebris’ clever Jane Austen inspired mysteries, whenever Mr. and Mrs. Darcy embark on a carriage journey across England they are sure to end up investigating murder in a country village inhabited by some one or other of Jane Austen’s characters from one of her novels. This truth has become so well fixed in minds of her fans that we consider this devise our rightful property and any deviations would be insupportable. Happily, her fifth book in the series The Intrigue at Highbury Or, Emma’s Match does not disappoint opening with the Darcy’s traveling to Sussex to visit recently married cousins Colonel and Anne Fitzwilliam. In Surrey along the London Road their carriage is hailed by a young woman in distress just outside the village of Highbury. What starts out as an act of kindness by the Darcy’s quickly turns into a clever con by highwaymen who assault their coachmen and relieve the Darcy’s of their possessions.
Determined to report the crime and recovery their family heirlooms the Darcy’s seek out the parish magistrate Mr. George Knightley who is having problems of his own. He and his new bride, the former Miss Emma Woodhouse, are entertaining a large party at Donwell Abbey in honor of friends Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s recent London wedding. Among the out-of-town guests are Col. and Mrs. Campbell, newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Peter Dixon and Mr. Edgar Churchill, the bridegroom’s adoptive father. Many of the Highbury set are in attendance including Miss Bates, a woman of a certain age and no fortune whom Emma has taken it upon herself to rescue from Mrs. Augusta Elton’s misguided matchmaking by introducing her to several illegible bachelors. The party is a great success until Frank’s father Mr. Churchill has a bit too much to drink, promptly becomes ill and unexpectedly dies. There is nothing like a corpse at a party to quickly quell the merriment of a celebration. Emma’s grand event has become the most infamous dinner party in Highbury history, and for all the wrong reasons. Moreover, Mr. Perry the apothecary suspects murder by poisoning and Mr. Knightley agrees.
Arriving at Donwell Abbey on the night of the ill fated party, the Darcy’s relay the criminal events of the evening to Mr. Knightley who now has two crimes to solve. It is not long before they both see connections between the highway robbery and the murder and join forces to solve both crimes. High on their list on possible suspects in Mr. Churchill’s death is his son Frank. Even though he is to inherit the Churchill fortune, other blood relatives could supersede him and dark family secrets are looming. On the other front, itinerant gypsies could be responsible for the robbery and are quickly connected to newly arrived peddler Hiram Deal who seems to have an abundant supply of merchandise and ample stock of gypsie elixirs potent enough to have killed Mr. Churchill. Throw in charades, riddles, secret anagrams, plot twists, red herrings, and many memorable characters old and new and you have one fast paced, witty whodunit that is sure to keep you guessing until the last page.
Readers of Jane Austen’s novel Emma will recognize similarities in the underlying plot to our modern murder mysteries. Filled with charades, riddles, word games, secret engagements and the speculation surrounding Jane Fairfax’s gift pianoforte, of all of Austen’s novels, Emma lends itself seamlessly to a continuation with a full mystery plot. Carrie Bebris’ skill at mining the original narrative for interesting coincidences to supplement her new story is amazing. In fear of spoilers I will not divulge my discoveries, but slyly allude to the fact that Mr. Knightley never liked Frank Churchill and was always suspect of his motives while others in the Highbury community could see no fault. That has not changed! Neither has the Austenesque wit as I found myself laughing at Mr. Woodhouse’s continued anxiety over other’s health and safety, Miss Bates’ endless chatter and the Mrs. Elton vs. Mrs. Knightley showdown over who would secure a beau for Miss Bates first absolutely hysterical. Unlike the other novels in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery Series, the Darcy’s take an equal role in sleuthing with the Knightley’s and both the men and ladies as pairs doubled the pace of the investigation. As always, Bebris’ historical research and inclusion of medical matters, poisons and gypsie culture in the Regency-era was quite impressive. If she is fibbing, she is a credit to her profession!
Bebris has surpassed herself offering her finest novel in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery Series yet. The Intrigue at Highbury will captivate Austen and mystery fans with its briskly paced continuation of Austen’s Emma infused with enough sharp wit, clever underpinnings, devious relations and fearsome gypsie attacks for the most diehard fans. However, I will withhold my highest praise and strongest prejudice for the next novel in the series when the Darcy’s travel to the seaside and meet the characters from Persuasion. Yay! Men in blue. La!
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
The Intrigue at Highbury Or, Emma’s Match, by Carrie Bebris
Tor/Forge Books (2010)
Hardcover (320) pages
Read my review of The Matters at Mansfield (4th Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery Series