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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read an English country-house murder mystery by Jane Austen? She didn't write one, of course, but in Claudia Gray's THE MURDER OF MR. WICKHAM, we get the next best thing. While I tend to involuntarily wince whenever I read about an author trying to shoehorn characters from all six of Austen's novels into one crammed-to-the-proverbial-gills book, Gray manages to pull that feat off very nicely.
Lovable busybody Emma Knightley and her husband George are hosting a summer house party at Donwell Abbey, and all of our favorite Austen characters are in attendance—except for "wild lady novelist" Catherine Tilney and her husband Henry, who have other plans. However, the Tilneys do send their young daughter Juliet, in the hopes that Catherine's friend Emma will help their country girl "improve her acquaintance"—with perhaps the added bonus of throwing her in the way of other rich men.
Rounding out the guest list are familiar names cast here as relatives and friends or acquaintances of the pair: Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the latter an "old college friend" of George's; Emma's cousin Colonel Brandon and his wife Marianne; Captain and Anne Wentworth, the Knightley's tenants at their other estate Hartfield; and Captain Wentworth's close relations, Fanny and the Reverend Edmund Bertram.
Shortly after her arrival, Juliet meets Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s son. Jonathan is an endearing and richly drawn character who struggles mightily to mask his idiosyncrasies — behaviors that we might understand today as rooted in neurodivergence—so as to properly observe the hyper-correct manners Regency society requires of the gentry. Though she's painfully aware how pitiful her near-penniless social stature looks compared to Jonathan's as the oldest son from the great Pemberley estate, she can't help but enjoy her interactions with the quirky Darcy heir.
At one of their first dinner parties with their guests, the Knightleys are surprised by a visit from one George Wickham. It quickly becomes apparent that Wickham is known—and loathed—by more than just the Darcys (as readers of Pride and Prejudice will recall). Colonel Brandon looks shaken upon hearing Wickham's name. Mr. Knightley is overtly rude to the man and speaks cryptically of "unresolved matters" between them. And Captain Wentworth makes a veiled comment about Wickham being connected to his recent financial losses. Only the Reverend Bertram appears unconnected to the Pride and Prejudice villain, although his mousy wife starts to grow even paler and more nervous the longer she's around him.
Juliet learns that the widowed Mr. Wickham (R.I.P. Lydia, felled by smallpox) has been the mastermind behind several shady investment dealings that enriched him while legally bilking others out of their wealth—and the Knightleys are his latest victims. Juliet notices that several of the other couples may have been involved as well, as all of them seem desperate to have him gone. Given the book's title, it's not shocking to the reader when Mr. Wickham turns up dead, although it is to Juliet, who discovers his body in the Donwell conservatory.
None other than Frank Churchill arrives the next morning. Now much more mature than when he wooed Emma to mask his affection for her erstwhile rival Jane Fairfax, Frank presides over Highbury as the town magistrate. Therefore, he is the person tasked with unmasking Wickham's killer. Juliet and Jonathan are both interested in his investigation—Juliet because she's fascinated by the drama, sharing her mother's passion for gothic novels, and Jonathan because while he is aware of his uncle's significant flaws, he nevertheless has some good memories of him. And he's fascinated by the drama. The two bump into each other while eavesdropping on Frank's interviews with the guests, and they soon enter into a tacit agreement to continue their spy games side by side. What they overhear does little to reassure them that the investigation is in good hands. Both soon realize Frank Churchill, while charming, isn't very bright, and all signs point to the fact that he seems very likely to pin the murder on an unfortunate—and innocent—servant.
Both Juliet and Jonathan agree that "the truth must be discerned, regardless of the constraints of civility," as Jonathan puts it. And because he has"never been good at constraining myself," Jonathan vows to conduct his own investigation. Juliet offers to join him, and quickly counters his half-hearted protest by pointing out that she can question the women guests, whereas it would be an egregious breach of manners for him to do so. Jonathan can't argue with her logic; nor is he enough of a stickler for propriety to insist she stop, given his own knack for tripping up on etiquette. And so, lucky for us, a grand investigative partnership is born.
Gray modernizes the language and, of course, some of the characters' attitudes, adding her own spin on Austen's beloved dramatis personae. That said, she puts them to good use, crafting a creative and delightful English murder mystery with snappy pacing, an intriguing central puzzle, and the obligatory Austenesque Easter eggs. Deftly balancing of her large cast, Gray had me whipping through her novel's pages to find out which of my beloved Austen friends had committed the unthinkable.
Though I did feel a bit regretful that Catherine Tilney didn't get to partake in the drama, which she undoubtedly would have loved as much as her daughter, I hope to see her and Henry in the sequel that Gray promises on her website. I am half agony, half hope waiting for the next installment.
§ Tracy Fernandez Rysavy teaches literature and writing for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and edits romance fiction for an indie publisher. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Green American magazine.
Reviewed by Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, July 2022
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