The conceit here is that Barron is merely the editor of Jane Austen's journal, recently discovered in a distant relative's coal house. And that Austen herself, between writing her novels, investigated crimes. So we have all the trappings of a superior Regency novel, combined with a genteel detective. Sayers meets Heyer, with a dash of mannered Austen, and a clever mixing of real incidents from her life with these purely fictional ones.
Here Jane must help her good friend Isobel, accused of murdering her husband of three months, in the frighteningly short period between her arrest and trial. As is customary in such stories, everyone has some dark secret to hide, and Jane must carefully tease out the truth, whilst staying within the bounds of propriety. A suitably convoluted tale, with some of the clues cleverly hidden as mere historical background, and with the added fun of spotting the direct steals from Austen's own prose (although the "editor" does on occasion take pains to point these out).
Jane Austen goes with her family to Lyme Regis. But on their way they are involved in a carriage accident and Cassandra is badly injured. They are forced to call for help of Geoffrey Sidmouth, who may or may not be the head of the local smuggling gang. There are murders, and much talk of rum, and silk, and Napoleon. Jane investigates again, determined to prove, one way or the other, just what Sidmouth's involvement is.
A decent detective yarn, this one rather more melodramatic than the first, and again mixed in with the pleasure of spotting some of the references to the real novels (although, again, the "editorial" footnotes are sometimes a bit heavy-handed).
It is approaching Christmas 1804, and Jane Austen is living quietly in Bath with her family when Lord Harold Trowbridge asks her a favour, to watch over his neice, Desdemona. But at a rout party a man is murdered, and Desdemona's brother is arrested. Jane is again in the thick of a murder enquiry.
I found this just a little bit slower than the previous ones -- I suspect the Austenesque descriptive passages are slightly less witty, and tend to drag just a little. But it's another decent detective yarn, cleverly interleaved with real historical events, such as the death of one of Jane's friends. (But I am getting more irritated with the "editorial" footnotes.)
It is summer 1805, and Jane is staying with her brother Edward in Kent, after the death of her father. There is much excitement due to the threatened invasion of the south coast by Napoleon's army. But some lesser excitement is provided by a murder taking place only a hundred paces from where Jane is sitting watching a horse race. Her subsequent investigations uncover jealousy, intrigue, and maybe treason.
I've marked this one down a little lower than the previous books simply because it is so blindingly obvious from the start how the murder is achieved (if not whodunnit) -- with the characters being blissfully unaware of this. But the rest of the plot moves along well, with several delightfully acidic passages about the excesses of the fashions for architecture and gardens.
August 1806, and Jane Austen, her sister and her mother are staying with her cousin Edward Cooper. When his children fall prey to chicken pox, he takes his relatives off to a visit of Derbyshire. There, on a seemingly innocent fishing trip, Jane discovers a mutilated body, and her investigation is on. This time, the Duke of Devonshire and his family may be involved, and the mysterious Lord Harold intervenes yet again.
More fun with Jane's acid observations, but I don't feel that the murder mystery itself is completely up to snuff. However, the feeling of place is very well done, making me exceedingly grateful I didn't live in those times, no matter what my station in life might have been.
February 1807. Jane and her mother are in Southampton, staying with her recently married brother while waiting for their a new house to be decorated. Her brother Frank Austen is a captain in the Royal Navy, and one of his brother officers has been accused of murdering a prisoner of war. Frank and Jane set out to clear his name, which, among other things, sends Jane off caring for sick French prisoners in the terrible conditions of Wool House prison.
Again, a well-drawn period piece, this time with a lot of naval detail, all interwoven in a convoluted and rather improbable plot. The grimness of some of the details, and the hypocrisy and unfairness of others, again makes me glad I am merely reading about, and not living in, those times.
October 1808, and Jane and her mother are still living in Southampton. Lord Harold Trowbridge reappears, to ask her a favour: watch over Mrs Sophia Challoner, recently arrived from Portugal and living in Netley Lodge. Lord Harold suspects her of being a French agent, but Jane finds Sopia all that is charming, and wonders if Lord Harold might not be mistaken. Yet there is certainly something nefarious afoot in the Southampton shipyards, and Jane could be in real danger.
This is a bit of a mess as a detective story, since Jane's investigations don't really lead anywhere, and the villain is uncovered independently. Yet it manages to maintain the series' historical tone, and ends with a significant plot development.