Book Review: Jane Austen’s Lost Letters by Jane K. Cleland
By John ValeriDecember 17, 2021
Jane Austen’s Lost Letters by Jane K. Cleland is the 14th installment in the beloved Josie Prescott Antiques series, set on the rugged New Hampshire coast, where the antiques appraiser is gifted two lost letters written by legendary author Jane Austen, but the search to learn more proves dangerous as some secrets might be worth killing for.
Jane K. Cleland writes what she knows (and makes up the rest). She once owned an antiques and rare books business and has drawn on that expertise to inform her fiction. In 2006’s Consigned to Death, Cleland introduced amateur sleuth Josie Prescott, who moved to the fictional town of Rocky Point, New Hampshire, and opened a similar enterprise, which has been steadily expanding and evolving along with the series. Both character and creator have been using their knowledge of antiques to solve crimes ever since—which continues to serve them well in the celebrated saga’s 14th installment, Jane Austen’s Lost Letters.
As the story opens, Josie is filming a new episode of her hit television show, Josie’s Antiques—in which two expert, and rival, documentarians spiritedly offer their appraisals of a copy of Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s classic, The Tale of Peter Rabbit—when the arrival of an unexpected guest interrupts production. Veronica Sutton not only claims to have known Josie’s father, who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks (this book coincides with the 20th anniversary), but comes bearing a much-belated gift contained in a paper-wrapped box. Taken aback by both the present and the presence, Josie nonetheless wants to talk to Ms. Sutton, but the woman refuses to divulge any personal details before making an abrupt departure.
Josie’s imagination is further stoked when she opens the package and finds that it contains what may be two letters handwritten by Jane Austen and then lost to history. This discovery begets more questions, including: Who exactly is Veronica Sutton? What was her relationship to Josie’s father? And how did she come into possession of the letters (which have yet to be authenticated)? But before Josie can satisfy those curiosities, she has the distinct misfortune of stumbling upon the body of one of the documentarians, Gloria Moreau, dead. It’s a clear case of murder, though the motive remains murky—and the closer Josie looks, the more danger she finds herself in.
With an abundance of mysteries to solve, Josie is torn between personal interest and professional integrity; the search for Veronica Sutton raises rare ethical and moral dilemmas for an innately honorable character. Not only has Ms. Sutton made it clear that she does not wish to be found but Josie’s own father chose not to share details of their acquaintanceship while he was still alive. Further, Josie’s investigation into Gloria Moreau’s death and a series of subsequent crimes (including a second murder) test her smarts and survival skills. Fortunately, Josie has her loyal sidekicks—including husband Ty, local reporter Wes Smith, and Police Chief Ellis Hunter (not to mention her devoted staff)—to aid, if not abet, her.
Jane K. Cleland is at her best with Jane Austen’s Lost Letters. In addition to a compelling premise based on literary lore, she serves up a multitude of mysteries that are both clever and cleverly connected. Further, members of the large ensemble cast have moments to shine and strut (subtly, of course) even as Josie remains the series’ grounding force. Insider details about the making of a TV show keep things fresh, proving that the familiar can continue to fascinate even after all these years (and books).