Book Review: The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray
Had Jane Austen ever turned her hand to greater murder mysteries than the quasi-Gothic plot that nearly ruined Catherine Morland’s relationship with Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, then I daresay she’d be both impressed and extremely pleased with what Claudia Gray has done here in homage to her completed novels.
Ms. Gray deftly assembles beloved characters from each of Ms. Austen’s six best-known works, placing them in a believable timeline such that they could all be guests of a long-married Emma and George Knightley at a Donwell Abbey house party. These guests include Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, along with their adult son Jonathan; Anne and Captain Frederick Wentworth, home now from his accomplished career at sea; Fanny and Edmund Bertram, who’ve settled well into his curacy; newlyweds Marianne and Colonel Christopher Brandon, and the inquisitive young Juliet Tilney, sent by her parents to see the wider world. Emma is the consummate hostess, doing her best to put everyone at ease and making quite a good showing of it…until that awful George Wickham shows up unannounced and uninvited one evening and begins to terrorize the assembled guests.
Wickham has certainly been busy since being forced to marry Elizabeth’s younger sister some decades past, and has taken full advantage of the turmoil at the end of the Napoleonic Wars to enrich himself, often at the expense of others:
Napoleon had never mustered up the force, or at least the opportunity, to invade England. The thousands of young men who had joined the militias meant to protect against such an invasion had worn uniforms, drilled, been admired, and otherwise little inconvenienced. Some of these men simply felt grateful the invasion had never come. Others—less aware of the horrors of war, and more hungry for distinction—deeply regretted the peace.
Most regretful of all were the avaricious. There were prizes to be won in wartime that would otherwise be out of reach of the average man with his fortune to make.
But fortunes could always be made, if you had the will. George Wickham had learned that.
Using honeyed words and sharp dealings, Wickham has managed to persuade away the money of many, including Captain Wentworth as well as Knightley’s brother James. Both Captain Wentworth and Knightley are infuriated to see him arrive, as are the Darcys and Colonel Brandon, for far more personal reasons. Propriety, however, will not let them turn him out into the rain—more out of concern for his horse than for Wickham himself.
The latter quickly does as much as he can to set the rest of the party against him, too. Soon, everyone is wishing he would leave…but only one person will go so far as to see him dead.
Local magistrate Frank Churchill is convinced that the murder must have been committed by a vagrant or a servant. Neither Juliet nor Jonathan are happy with this explanation, as all the evidence that they can see points to the culprit being a member of the house party. As the only two people with the combination of lack of opportunity and lack of motive—as well as sharing both a lively intelligence and an abhorrence for the idea that an innocent servant could hang for the crime—Juliet and Jonathan soon team up to investigate. In addition to the usual obstacles faced by amateur sleuths, however, they quickly find themselves stymied by the manners of the day, not least when it comes to privately communicating what they learn to one another. Juliet is baffled as to how to pass him a letter containing her suspicions, and wonders whether she even should.
No respectable young woman would ever write to an unmarried man unless they were engaged. To presume as much after meeting the younger Mr. Darcy only three days ago! Everyone else present would be shocked.
Perhaps she ought to be shocked herself. The most correct course of action would be for her to destroy this letter and pretend no such conversation had ever taken place between her and Jonathan Darcy. Certainly their current endeavor could not be described as proper.
Will Juliet and Jonathan be able to overcome the strict social code of the times in order to bring a murderer to justice? And will we readers want them to when the truth is finally revealed?
Ms. Gray’s ability to extrapolate not only the relationships of these storied couples and their offspring makes for an astonishingly convincing and tremendously entertaining pastiche. Most importantly, all her conclusions make sense given what we already know of the characters. Written elegantly, with a keen eye for Regency detail as well as a deep knowledge and affection for Ms. Austen’s oeuvre, this is an entirely plausible continuation of the Austen canon that stands as a worthwhile read in its own right.