From the desk of Sophia Rose:
‘Murder’ and ‘Wickham’ in the same title makes any Jane Austen lover worth their salt sit up and take notice. Now, add that with an author name long associated with young adult sci-fi and fantasy, and that makes Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham well-nigh irresistible.
The Murder of Mr. Wickham is both a historical mystery and pays homage as a sequel to not one, but all Miss Jane Austen’s completed six novels. There are multiple points of views to tantalize fans of Austen’s revered couples, but the spotlight is on two author original characters representing the next generation determined to get to the bottom of matters.
An Invitation to Donwell Abbey
“This is not like Northanger, Juliet thought, excitement mounting as her carriage drew closer to the great house where she was to spend the next few weeks.” (Loc 308)
Young, vibrant Juliet Tilney arrives fresh-faced and eager for her first adventure away from home. Egged on by a novel-writing mother who experienced her own first time traveling at Juliet’s age and a cautious practical-minded father, she is determined to make the most of the adventure while not disappointing her parents.
Emma Knightley is pleased to receive her husband’s distant cousin and his wife, Edmund and Fanny Bertram. The Wentworths were invited to stay while repairs are made on Emma’s former home, Hartfield, which they are leasing. Emma is curious to meet her husband’s old friend from university, Fitzwilliam Darcy, along with his wife and oldest son. The recently wed, Colonel and Marianne, are a study in contrasts. Mr. Knightley doesn’t miss the fact that his wife has slipped in a young lady when she learned the Darcys were bringing their son. Matchmaking again, Emma? Donwell Abbey is full of guests, and she anticipates a successful country house party until the party sits down to dinner.
“Certain mishaps befall every dinner party. Gravy is spilled, seating arrangements prove awkward. An adept hostess, and congenial guests, can smooth away such small imperfections and allow the party to proceed pleasantly. There was no smoothing over the sudden appearance of Mr. Wickham.” (Loc. 588)
A Murderer in Their Midst
Juliet and Jonathan both sense from the beginning that the house party will not be an easy one. For one thing, all the guests are caught up in personal drama of their own. That is nothing to the appearance of Mr. Wickham with his smirks and nasty behavior and threats. When a storm prolongs his stay, matters come to a boiling point leading to Juliet’s late-night discovery of the murdered Mr. Wickham.
Beyond their own natural inclinations to discover the truth, both Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney realize early on that the magistrate, Mr. Frank Churchill, has preconceived ideas and justice is in jeopardy. They separately decide to get to the truth no matter to whom the trail leads.
“The moment in which politeness demanded that anyone else nearby withdraw to a point where they would not overhear, Jonathan didn’t move. Miss Tilney didn’t either… Juliet Tilney was as curious about the murder as he.” (Loc 1535)
Not So Happily Ever After
The Murder of Mr. Wickham starts slowly as the large cast of characters and their present situations are introduced. All of Austen’s romantic pairs save Catherine and Henry Tilney are present and their marriage lives have not been a bed of roses once the blush of early love has settled into daily lives. And this is a story of them as much as a murder mystery. The author masterfully provided the sad, bitter atmosphere their plaguing issues have on the gathering and the setting. The emotional tone carried weight and couples I loved were now disappointing me. I had to push through the first half especially the dragging moments and trust that the dreariness would be dispelled as people dealt with what lay between them in their respective marriages.
Emerging Detectives and Budding Feelings
Of course, the balance to all those grown-up troubles was the optimism and sparkle of the amateur detecting team determined to get a solution.
Juliet Tilney is in her mother’s image in curiosity about people and wanting an adventure, but she is also very much her keen-witted paternal parent’s offspring, too. She is inexperienced yet applies herself to finding the evidence and paying attention to people’s actions and words without prejudice since she alone is impartial. She also experiences her first-time attraction for someone unlike her and out of her sphere as she sees it.
Her partner in detecting, Jonathan Darcy, would likely be placed, in modern times, on the Autistic spectrum. He has endured through a disability that wasn’t known to exist in that time, but he is a fabulous fellow and after a poor first impression, Juliet thinks so too and gives him quite a boost of encouragement. He has never met her clear-eyed honesty and earnestness in any of the girls of fashion and much prefers Juliet.
“All his life, his habits had been a source of consternation to his parents. To others, they had been the cause of contempt. Jonathan’s ears still burned with some of the insults that had been hurled at him in school. Miss Tilney either would be bewildered or would laugh at him… “It is peculiar, of course,” Miss Tilney said, “but my mother has often told me that most people are really very, peculiar, once you get to know them. The only difference is in how well we hide our peculiarities.” (Loc 1824)
All’s Well That Ends Well
At the risk of giving anything away, I will at least share that readers needn’t be worried that the whole thing is doom and gloom—not even for the Bertrams who have the longest path to change of them all. The heaviness that permeated the earlier half of the book lifts as Austen’s couples work through their marital struggles and the relief is great when the murder is solved. The solution was a surprise, and my heart was in my throat until the case was closed. Anyone could have done it and I appreciated this even as I was pulling a Frank Churchill and hoping a stranger did it.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like this one through the early chapters, until the book won me over. I was very taken with Juliet and Jonathan and was deeply impressed with the author’s sensitivity to Austen’s characters and their ongoing story. While initially I was unsure about some of the portrayals of Austen’s characters, the resolve came, and I could nod with quiet approval. Well done, Ms. Gray.
While this will resonate best with those familiar with Austen’s novels, there is enough background for any reader to pick it up and appreciate a slow build old-style historical mystery.
4 out of 5 Stars
- The Murder of Mr. Wickham, by Claudia Gray
- Vintage (May 3, 2022)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (400) pages
- ISBN: 978-0593313817
- Genre: Austenesque, Historical Mystery, Cozy Mystery
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2022; text Sophia Rose © 2022, austenprose.com.