I felt I did not do full justice to Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park the last time I wrote about it, and I resolved to go back and do something about that. I should have done so before now, but so many things have gotten in the way.
I wrote my comments at about midpoint in my first reading of the book, shortly before the murder is discovered. The book has 363 pages in the edition I am reading, and the body is discovered on page 158. Once a murder has been discovered, the book takes on a kind of energy it seemed to lack before that. Or maybe it is not the book that underwent a shift, but the reader.
For the things that were troubling me about the book up to that point — how it both was and was not like Mansfield Park, the abrupt shifts in points of view and tone, the moments of foreshadowing that did not seem to fit, my sense of puzzlement about what the author’s aim was — all seemed to fall away. Suddenly, everything made perfect sense, for I found myself in the familiar, forgiving world of an English country house murder mystery, and I understood exactly what the author was doing. And thought she did it very well. The detective, Charles Maddox, is perfect. Mary Crawford, once she steps out of the shadow of the other Mary Crawford , becomes an engaging and sympathetic character. The mystery plot is taut and engrossing; the language never gets in the way.
And could I have not figured this out before? The title of the book, after all, contains the word “Murder.” There is an image of a corpse on the cover; a tasteful image, sure, but still; I was a bit slow on the uptake. The only thing I can say in my defense was, there was so much of Jane Austen here, I got confused. I was thinking the author was trying to do something else — what? I was not certain. Construct an alternate Mansfield Park, somewhat the way the wonderfully strange Wild Sargasso Sea constructs an alternate Jane Eyre? Certainly Mansfield Park is the novel that Jane Austen fans find the most vexing: the way the people we feel we are supposed to admire (Fanny and Edmund) are so much harder to like than the supposed villains of the piece (Mary and Henry Crawford). Certainly there is a large body of readers who think the main characters married the wrong people, and that a Henry-Fanny and Edmund-Mary match-up would have been a more satisfying result. I do not share these views, but I do understand them. Was this the author’s intent, to at once construct a homage to Mansfield Park and a more satisfying end to it, through the device of murder mysteries and alternate endings?
It’s a good deal easier, and probably more pleasing to readers, to write a good murder mystery than the Mansfield Park answer to Wide Sargasso Sea, and I am happy that this is what Lynn Shepherd did. The main lesson I took away from this book is how truly elastic the murder mystery is as a form, despite its seemingly ironclad requirements.
SPOILER ALERT!!! And in this retelling, I really did think the heroine married the wrong person! I was hoping Mary Crawford would marry Mr. Maddox and travel around England solving crimes with him. I think this could be the basis for a very promising series. Perhaps in Lynn Shepherd’s next book, he can end up with another overlooked Austen heroine. Charlotte Collins, anyone (after the convenient death of her first husband)?