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