Sunday, May 29, 2016

Jane and Cantebury Tale by Stephanie Barron (A Jane Austen mystery)

I have to be careful when reviewing installments in this series. The truth is ever since a major development involving a certain major character occurred, the books simply haven’t been the same.

Don’t get me wrong – Stephanie Barron’s command of Austen’s syntax and narrative style, not to mention her ability to plausibly tie every mystery into where Austen actually was at the time in real life, continues to be nothing short of incredible.

That said, this installment was oddly easy to figure out. Admittedly, this could be because I primarily read historical fiction mysteries (hence this blog), particularly character series. But I’ve always counted on Barron for her ability to genuinely stump and surprise.

Barron’s plots, like Austen’s, are generally subtle without being opaque. The puzzle in Jane Austen mysteries is usually pieced together through the quiet but crucial tells of the different characters. A stutter here, an unexplained absence there, strange behavior or a tiny inconsistency in aspect or dress.

To be sure, there is some of that in this book. But one of the main events – the delivery of a sachet of seeds to a bride on the eve of her second wedding – fizzles out a bit and was rather disappointing. I suppose it could have been a peacock feather meant to distract, but all the same, that tantalizing plot point was still something of a letdown.

Likewise, one of the characters, a sketchy, world-traveled sailor, is marvelously compelling. Austen and her brother’s visit to that character in gaol is Barron at her best. But here, too, the final reveal was not very surprising and rather anticlimactic.

Again, I have to be careful here. I may simply be getting over the series; I wasn’t a huge fan of the last installment, either. I’ll admit that for about six months now my tastes have leaned towards more contemporary mystery series. 

Still, normally I when I read a Jane Austen mystery it is an elegant experience during which the reader is given plenty of time and room to savor character development. Though the events are rarely hurried, the undercurrent thread of suspense is always taut. This installment, though not unenjoyable, simply didn’t seem as good as the others. 

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