Jane and the Final Mystery (Being a Jane Austen Mystery)
“Barron demonstrates once again that framing this mystery series within the nature of an intelligent and witty woman can bring 1817 back to life in an engaging and well-spun narrative. “
There are several excellent reasons for picking up a copy of this final volume in Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series: passion for Austen and her novels, curiosity about how this skilled writer will approach Austen’s death, and connection to the 14 volumes that precede it in the sequence. Add two more: passion for Austen’s clever and often biting insight into the customs of her time—carried out accordingly by Barron in her pastiche—and, of course, the hunger of any mystery reader for how a murder will be solved and the characters realigned in the process.
Consider the foundational guidelines of solving a fictional crime, and probably for many true crimes: “follow the money” and “cherchez la femme” (seek the woman involved). Jane and the Final Mystery depends on both of these. The ailing author, age 41, is grimly facing her likely death from a mysterious ailment. The usual remedies of cutting, bleeding, and morphine are not helping or hold too much risk (biographers consider that Austen probably died of Addison’s disease, a thyroid disorder untreatable in her time). At any rate, she looks and feels awful, and is starving because she can’t handle food. But when William Heathcote, the teenaged son of Jane’s dear friend Elizabeth, is charged with murder of a sadistic prefect at his boarding school, Jane forces herself to pay attention.
She’d had advance warning from Elizabeth, but it all sounded so unreal to her. Surely Elizabeth exaggerated the peril facing William? And why should Jane be involved? “What can I possibly know of schoolboys?” she scoffs. Elizabeth presses the point that Jane is not so ignorant of boys who become young men, “and their vices both common and apparent. With these, Jane, I suspect you are well acquainted.”
So it’s no real surprise when Jane gets a letter from the young man himself, begging, “Pray write to say that you shall Succour me in my Hour of Need.” The inquest on the death of the prefect is about to take place—can Jane arrive in time? Despite her infirmities, she makes it there, only to discover she’s helpless to divert the system from declaring the guilt of young William. Still, he calls out to his mother as he’s hauled back to jail, “Austen will set all to rights!”
Here the true investigation ramps up. Barron’s deft portrayal of Jane’s physical incapacity alongside her sharp mind and her ability to enlist the right assistance sustains the tension, and as Jane begins to see fortunes at stake in the families around her, she realizes that this may not be a “schoolboy vengeance” crime at all, but a careful plot for someone’s future wealth and standing. To free William also involves finding the young lady crucial to the related testimony and persuading her to take an active role, counter to the customs of the time.
Rest assured, the fictional Jane does not die in the investigation (very important for those reading the book from a passion for Austen material). Yet Barron makes it clear that this is her final effort, a last salute to a career of both writing and social commentary by a woman who still inspires lifelong fans for her stories and her life.
Barron demonstrates once again that framing this mystery series within the nature of an intelligent and witty woman can bring 1817 back to life in an engaging and well-spun narrative. With the closing of this series, it’s impossible not to wonder which unusual direction this former CIA analyst, and author of the Merry Folger Nantucket mysteries, will tackle next.