From the desk of Christina Boyd:
Seemingly moments after reading the end of award-winning author’s Carrie Bebris, The Deception at Lyme (Or, The Peril of Persuasion) in 2011, the sixth novel in her Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery series, I, along with other fans wondered what Bebris might write next. Much speculation surfaced whether she would attempt a mystery with Austen’s lesser-known works: Sanditon, The Watsons, and Lady Susan or abandon the scheme altogether! Not four years later, and all anticipation, I had my hands on an advanced copy of Bebris’s seventh in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery series, Suspicion at Sanditon (Or, the Disappearance of Lady Denham).
Only the most astute Austen fans will know Sanditon is the unfinished novel that Jane Austen began writing in January 1817 and forsook after the first eleven chapters on March 18—dying 4 months later on July 18, 1817. Others might be interested to understand this first draft centers on a Miss Charlotte Heywood, the daughter of a country gentleman, who travels to a developing seaside resort, Sanditon, and encounters a ridiculous baronet Sir Edward Denham, the Parker family who were always imagining themselves unwell, and the twice-widowed dowager Lady Denham with no heir apparent. “In those few chapters, she sets her stage, populates it with memorable characters, and infuses the whole with humor reminiscent of her earlier writings.” (332) Author’s Note.
In Suspicion at Sanditon, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy were about to set off with Darcy’s cousins Colonel Fitzwilliam and his wife, the former Anne de Bourgh, for this new place by the sea to discover if it is worthy of their financial investment. However, true to form, Lady Catherine de Bourgh sent word she would descend upon her daughter and son-in-law for an unscheduled visit, so the Darcy’s continued on without them—assuring the Fitzwilliams they would visit the seaside village themselves and would send back word as to their recommendations. There in Sanditon, along with their friend Charlotte Heywood, the Darcy’s become acquainted with the same peculiar villagers and visitors of Austen’s original first draft.
The Darcy’s barely establish themselves in their lodgings when the dowager Lady Denham invited them to a dinner party along with all her grasping relations. The dinner guests awaited the arrival of their hostess–who inevitably failed to appear! On that dark and stormy night, Darcy organized an anxious search of the property and the house.
Attempting to control this group would be akin to herding cats. Yet standing back and watching any of the rest of them manage the inquiry would prove a still greater exercise in frustration. At least if he consented to lead the investigation, he would have the authority to ensure it was done well, and that no one with an interest in the matter would be able to exploit the proceedings for his or her benefit. (132)
But speculation abounds as one by one, the guests seemed to disappear. Though the Darcy’s are attentive to details, Bebris skillfully throws suspicion on all her characters as she takes us on a madcap who-dunnit.
For the first one hundred pages, Bebris scrupulously sketches the characters and the setting. And yet, I was desperate for something meaningful to finally happen! Once Volume the Second, In Which the Search for Lady Denham Commences began, the search for the missing dowager does just that. It was frustrating that after waiting so long for progress though, there was a lot of exploring the old manse with (or even without) a single candle, backtracking, tittle-tattle of the dinner guests wanting their dinner/dry clothes/their beds and assumptions of where their hostess might be and what might be done on a night such as this…and with little profit of clues. But I plodded on. Like in previous intrigues, the Darcy’s were not the focus. However, they seemed to be the only voices of reason in a sea of nonsensical decisions. I pitied the Darcys to be surrounded by such foolish company! Rather, my favorite scenes were the rare nuggets when the Darcy’s were in private.
“At least Lady Denham, for all the criticisms we have heard of her frugality, seems to have adopted a practical approach to managing the household. If the best apartment in the house was sitting unused, why should she not take it as her own?”
“I shall remember that you said that, should I someday find myself widowed and decide to move in to your apartment.”
He looked up from the letters to meet her gaze. A teasing smile played upon her lips. He returned it, grateful for her drawing him, at least for a moment, away from the world of Sanditon and into the their own. He wished he were home, instead of on a “holiday” that had turned out to be anything but. “You may have it now, if you want it. The bedchamber is seldom enough occupied.” Because he spent most nights in hers. “Whether before or after my demise, however, I would find a way to visit you after dark.” (170)
Until Volume the Third, In Which Villainy is Exposed, And Order Restored, throughout this tempestuous night, Lady Denham’s guests continue to disappear (and reappear) before all is revealed. Which was surprisingly wholly satisfying! After the first two volumes, hoping for some purposeful action to occur—it all came together in the end in classic Bebris brilliance!
Though this is not my favorite novel in Bebris’s most excellent series, I was gladdened by the exceptional story that ultimately enfolded in the final chapters. I particularly enjoyed the Author’s Notes where Bebris explained her research into Austen’s unfinished manuscript. And I am all curious if Carrie Bebris might venture another mystery with The Watsons.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Suspicion at Sanditon, Or, The Disappearance of Lady Denham, by Carrie Bebris
Tor Books (2015)
Hardcover and eBook (336) pages
Cover image courtesy of Tor Books © 2015; text Christina Boyd © 2015, Austenprose.com
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