One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading a story that strongly references another is the zing of recognition the reader feels each time they “get” the joke. Borrowing heavily from Jane Austen’s Peruasion, Tracy Kiely’s cozy mystery, appropriately titled Murder Most Persuasive, managed to give this reader quite a few zings while delivering a solidly crafted mystery that even the starchiest of Janeites would approve.
The story is from the point of view of Elizabeth Parker, for whom Jane Austen quoting is a way of life. It begins with the funeral of Elizabeth’s Uncle Marty, whose three grown daughters are forced to deal with their vain and foolish step-mother over the settling of their father’s estate. When a body is unearthed at the family vacation house, Elizabeth’s sleuthing instincts are put on high alert, especially when the victim turns out to be her cousin Reggie’s former fiancé, Michael, who was thought to have skipped town after embezzling from her father’s business.
Plenty of people had reason to wish Michael dead, not least Reggie’s sister Ann, who was nearly assaulted by him just before he went missing. As in Austen’s Persuasion, this Ann was also persuaded to end an engagement by a family friend, and as luck would have it, the detective assigned to investigate Michael’s murder is none other than her former fiancé, Joe.
“I’m sorry to have to disturb you,” he said now, “especially so soon after your father’s funeral.” He paused. “I was sorry to hear of his passing. You have my condolences.”
I have to admit, hearing Joe say that aroused my darkest forebodings. Joe hated Uncle Marty. And to be fair, it wasn’t without reason. Uncle Marty did everything he could to make Joe feel unwelcome and unworthy to be a member of the Reynolds family. But all those years ago Joe had an open face that was easy to read. However, the way Joe offered his condolences just now, you would have thought that he really had liked Uncle Marty. It didn’t bode well, in my humble opinon.
Seeing Ann still standing in the foyer helplessly clutching Reggie’s glass of wine, I said, “Let me go get some coffee for everyone.” I hurried out, still clutching Scarlett in one hand, and firmlygrabbed Ann by the elbow with the other and steered her to the kitchen.
“It’s Joe!” she said numbly. “Jesus, I can’t believe this. After all these years, he’s here. In this house. Oh, my God.” Frantically running her hands through her hair, she tried to see her reflection in the chrome toaster. “I look like shit!” she wailed.
“Would you put the toaster down? You do not look like shit,” I said, as I deposited Scarlett on the floor and then yanked open the cupboards in search of coffee. As I said this, though, I realized that to a certain extent Ann’s looks had suffered somewhat since her breakup with Joe. For lack of a better phrase, she’d lost her glow. When Joe left, a part of Ann had faded away. As no other man had ever come close to Joe in her estimation, the glow had never returned. However, this obviously wasn’t the time to address that. “Pull yourself together. Where the hell is the coffee?” I asked.
“Top shelf, left,” she said automatically. “Did you see the way he looked at me? Like he was looking through me or something.”
Anyone who has read Persuasion will know immediately the scene this one recalls. Only in Kiely’s version, Ann has the sympathetic Elizabeth to see her through it.
What’s particularly wonderful about this variation on Austen’s theme is how deftly Kiely navigates the line between the self-conscious Austenian references of the narrator with the moments like the one above, when characters within the story are clearly meant to be modeled after Austen’s.
For someone like me, who once ate, drank, and breathed Austen, Tracy Kiely’s playful, referential prose is like revisiting an old, beloved friend. And unlike either Austen’s Wentworth or Kiely’s Joe, when I see my old friend Jane again, even as viewed through someone else’s lens, I find her as lovely as ever.
Manda Collins has been reading mysteries since her first Nancy Drew at the age of six. An academic librarian by day, by night she writes historical romance blended with mystery for St. Martin’s Press. Her first book, How to Dance with a Duke, is scheduled for release in February, 2012. To learn more, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter @MandaCollins.