I confess to being a silly, shallow creature when it comes to my partiality to fine art and the stage. Show me a beautiful Regency-era portrait by Thomas Lawrence or Richard Cosway, mention famous Drury Lane actors Sarah Siddons and her brothers Charles and John Kemble, and my sensibilities rival Marianne Dashwood’s fondness for dead leaves. Mix in my favorite author Jane Austen embroiled in a murder mystery centered around artists and actors in Bath, and I am in a sensory swoon.
Jane and the Wandering Eye is the third novel in the popular Being a Jane Austen Mystery series in which the famous authoress uses her astute skills of observation and logic as an amateur sleuth to solve a crime. In 1804 Jane, her sister Cassandra and their parents are residing in Bath. Despite the jollity of the Christmas season, Jane is “insupportably bored with Bath” and its social diversions, many of which are outside her means. She is, however, happy to accept a commission from her particular friend and Rogue-about-Town Lord Harold Trowbridge to spy on his niece Lady Desdemona. The young ingénue has recently fled London and the unwanted attentions of the Earl of Swithins to seek refuge in Bath with her grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough. Jane, her brother Henry and his wife Eliza attend a masquerade party at the Duchesses Laura Place residence in honor of Bath’s Theatre Royal players. Also in attendance is Madame Lefroy, Jane’s neighbor, and dearest friend. During the party they witness a drama unfold as tragic as any Shakespearean play. The theatre troupe’s stage manager Richard Portal is found stabbed to death with Lord Harold’s nephew Simon, Marquis of Kinsfell standing over him with a bloody knife in his hand and an open window behind him.
Mr. Elliot the local magistrate is summoned and witnesses questioned. Since everyone was in costume it is difficult to follow the events of the evening, but he soon learns that the key suspect, the Marquis in the Knight costume, was seen arguing with the victim, Mr. Portal in a white Harlequin costume, and challenged him to a duel. They were separated and Mr. Portal was asked to leave the party, later reappearing as a corpse in an anteroom with a knife through his heart. Curiously, a miniature portrait of an eye is found on his body. Under protest, the Marquis is charged with murder and thrown in the local goal. What started out for Jane as a mild request to observe and report on Lord Harold’s niece has now turned into a scandalous murder by his nephew, drawing him to Bath, and into Jane’s confidence. Taken with his charm, intelligence, and family drama, she cannot refuse him anything and they join forces to investigate the facts, unravel the crime, and discover the murderer.
Warning. If you blink too long in the first chapter you might miss significant clues. Stephanie Barron hardly lets us breathe for fear we would miss something. The dense and fast-paced events had me furiously writing notes to keep the facts and characters straight. It is unusual to have a murder transpire so quickly, but I enjoyed the build-up and the shock of the reveal. The mystery progresses from Jane Austen’s perspective as we read her lost journals edited by the author with added footnotes. The historical detail is entrancing to me. Not only do we follow events and people from Jane Austen’s life, but the social and cultural details were amazing in their depth and interest. At times I found the prose thick and heavy, craving a bit of brevity in the language, but overall Barron does an excellent job at early nineteenth-century Austen-speak. Her dialogue was even more engaging. The characterization of Jane’s parents Rev. and Mrs. Austen’s ironic divergence in personalities was entertaining, her brother Henry and gadabout wife Eliza’s joie de vivre delightful, and roguish Lord Harold was well, just dishy enough to curl any hard-hearted spinsters toes. *swoon*
Having the advantage of previously reading all the novels in this series before, I can firmly attest that Jane and the Wandering Eye is my favorite in the series. I loved the historical detail on art and the lives of its creators, actors and their social machinations with aristocrats, and all the intimate dealing of Jane Austen and her family. Originally published in 1998, I can honestly say that with a decade of study and appreciation of the Regency-era behind me, this mystery was even fresher, more intriguing, and enlightening the second time around. I recommend it highly.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane and the Wandering Eye, by Stephanie Barron
Random House (1998)
Mass Market Paperback (336) pages
This is my third selection in the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. You can still join the reading challenge in progress until July 1, 2011. Participants, please leave comments and or place links to your reviews on the official reading challenge page by following this link.
Author Stephanie Barron has generously offered a signed hardcover copy of Jane and Wandering Eye to one lucky winner. Leave a comment stating what intrigues you about this novel, or if you have read it, who your favorite character is by midnight PT, Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, March 17, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!
© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose