The Suspicion at Sanditon (Or, the Disappearance of Lady Denham) by Carrie Bebris is the 7th cozy addition to the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery Series set in the location of Jane Austen's final work (available July 14, 2015).
“Well, does Lady Denham intend to join us at all this evening?” Mr. Hollis's volume drew the attention of all the guests, and the conversation ceased.
Miss Brereton flinched at his querulous demand. “I do not know.”
Mr. Parker was more sympathetic. “As you have returned without her, I can only suppose something significant prevents her from joining us. Is Lady Denham indisposed?”
Her composure suddenly breaking to reveal her distress, her gaze swept all the guests before returning to Mr. Parker.
“Lady Denham is missing.”
Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife Elizabeth (formerly Bennet, oh she of the “fine eyes” and lively wit) have only recently arrived in the small coastal town of Sanditon, primarily to advise their friend and cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam on whether it will be a sound investment for him, when they find themselves embroiled in a most perplexing situation.
On the night of an elaborate dinner, their hostess — the very wealthy and very strong-willed Lady Philadelphia Denham — disappears without a trace. And with a terrible storm fast approaching, the entire party finds itself stranded in Sanditon House.
Stranded in a huge house and with one of their number a kidnapper at best, a murderer at worst. Hardly the pleasant evening the Darcys were hoping for.
It quickly becomes apparent that many of the guests have ulterior motives when it comes to the missing Lady. Only Darcy and Elizabeth, being complete strangers, can be trusted to untangle the knot, as they are immediately dismissed from the list of suspects. And a colorful list of suspects it is…
The Lady's niece and nephew, Esther and Sir Edward Denham, appear to be cultured and sophisticated — but they're also incredibly self-centered and fully expect to inherit the bulk of the Lady's estate. Then there's the eminently unlikable Josiah Hollis, nephew to the Lady's long-dead first husband, who harbors a lifelong grudge for being ousted from the family home by a woman he always considered a gold-digger. He certainly doesn't go out of his way to make friends with any of the other guests and immediately makes himself a thorn in Darcy's side.
Perhaps in his late fifties, Josiah was a thin man whose small eyes, long teeth, and grey hair lent him the appearance of a rat. Darcy might have pitied him this unfortunate rodential resemblance were it not for his equally unpleasant demeanor. He spoke little, studying the room and its occupants with the eye of a scavenger and an air of resentment.
Mr. Thomas Parker is an amiable gentleman, but he's also Lady Denham's business partner and is downright obsessed with expanding Sanditon regardless of the cost; could he have done something nefarious in order to secure her wealth for future improvements? And while his hypochondriac siblings — Susan, Diana, and Arthur — appear to be more annoying than conniving, perhaps they were accomplices to their more intelligent brother's scheme. And the youngest sibling, the dashing Sidney, could very well be hiding something sinister behind his charming facade.
Then there's the Lady's companion and cousin, Clara Brereton, who was rescued from poverty and has every reason to be grateful to her patroness. But she only lives at Sanditon House at the whim of her wealthy cousin; considering the precariousness of her situation, she might have taken steps to secure a more permanent place there.
Miss Charlotte Heywood, a friend of both Elizabeth and the Parkers, must surely be innocent of any wrong-doing — but she may be the kidnapper's next target. And finally there's the mysterious Mr. Granville, Sidney Parker's close companion and a newcomer to town. He's eager to help the Darcys in their investigation and can't possibly be connected to the missing Lady — can he?
The night that follows is a wild one. There's talk of ghosts, the local legend of Ivy Woodcock (a young woman who disappeared almost exactly a century ago), and plenty of creeping around dark corridors with candles during a violent thunderstorm. With secret passageways, further disappearances, long-hidden family secrets finally exposed, and stolen kisses behind curtains, everything has a deliciously gothic tone that wouldn't be out of place in a Charlotte Brontë novel, though the characters and setting are Austen-inspired.
The mystery, of course, monopolizes much of the story, but there are interludes of romance that Jane would have fancied. Darcy and Elizabeth are much as they were in the original novel, with Darcy being more staid and level-headed while Lizzie still can't resist teasing.
“At least Lady Denham, for all the criticisms we have heard of her frugality, seems to have adopted a practical approach to managing the household. If the best apartment in the house was sitting unused, why should she not take it as her own?”
“I shall remember you said that, should I someday find myself widowed and decide to move into your apartment.”
He looked up from the letters to meet her gaze. A teasing smile played about her lips. He returned it, grateful to her for drawing him, at least for a moment, away from the world of Sanditon and into their own. He wished they were home, instead of on a “holiday” that had turned out to be anything but.
“You may have it now, if you want it. The bedchamber is seldom enough occupied.” Because he spent most nights in hers. “Whether before or after my demise, however, I would find a way to visit you after dark.”
“I thought you did not believe in ghosts?”
“That was before I learned there was chocolate involved.”
She laughed. “Well, do not plan to cross over to the spirit realm or pack up your belongings anytime soon, for I am quite well satisfied with our present arrangement.”
Meanwhile, Miss Heywood is overjoyed to visit tiny Sanditon after a lifetime trapped at home tending to her younger siblings, and is quite taken by surprise when she meets the charming, worldly Sidney Parker. Are those sparks flying between them in lightning-lit rooms? The evening's events lead to much suspicion and fright for all concerned, but perhaps some good will come of them after all…
The Suspicion at Sanditon (Or, the Disappearance of Lady Denham) is fun, light, and quick-paced. The characters are colorful and the twists in the mystery are all untangled in a supremely satisfactory way by tale's end. A lot happens in just over three hundred pages, and yet Carrie Bebris never confuses her audience or uses clumsy red herrings to muddle the story.
There have been a ridiculous number of Pride and Prejudice sequels, prequels, re-imaginings, and re-writes over the last two hundred years. Darcy has been a vampire. Lizzie has been an outspoken feminist with a vlog. They've both faced down a zombie apocalypse. Bebris' decision to have them crack mysteries like a Regency Nick and Nora Charles is hardly the most unusual take on the beloved characters.
In the multitude of adaptations on the classic story, it's true that many have been middling to bad. But there are the occasional diamonds for the devoted Austenite, and I'm pleased to say Bebris is largely in this category. Things may get a little far-fetched and wilder in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries than Austen would have ever dared, but the pre-existing characters still ring true and the dialogue feels natural. Bebris obviously loves the original novels and takes pains to be respectful.
Plus: given the fact that the source material this novel is riffing off of, Sanditon, is the least known of Jane Austen's novels and was actually never completed means Bebris has a lot of room to stretch. Since we'll never truly know just what Jane Austen intended to do with the Parkers and the Denhams, we can't hold this story up in comparison and find it wanting — which could be a very good selling point for any Austenite who may be predisposed to dislike contemporary authors tackling the lady's beloved characters. The ending Bebris provides the characters here is just as valid as any other.
If you've never given the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries a chance, I highly recommend starting here, just as I did. It's a great opportunity to fall in love with Darcy and Elizabeth all over again: the beloved lovers are just as sharp and capable as ever.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.