Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

Warning - Mild spoilers

The last two Jane Austen mysteries have had a bit of melancholy air to them, with a pall cast by the loss of Jane's Gentleman Rogue.  Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron starts with the death of Jane's beloved cousin Eliza but it's a much more vibrant novel than its immediate predecessors.  

Jane and her brother Henry travel to Brighton to recover from Eliza's death.  Along the way, they rescue a young woman who has been kidnapped by the dissipated Lord Byron, a young woman who eventually turns up dead, sewn into a shroud made from the sails of Lord Byron's boat.  Jane is not exactly part of this social circle, but Lord Harold's niece Desdemona (whom Jane befriended in a prior novel) asks for her help on behalf of one of Lord Byron's acknowledged lovers, Lady Oxford.  (Can you imagine how much fun the supermarket tabloids would have with these convoluted relationships?)  

Jane, of course, uncovers the truth but the real joy in the novel is in seeing Jane enjoy her new-found fame.  Everyone is reading Pride and Prejudice, and we get a little bit of a thrill when Byron tells Jane that he wanted to meet her because one must know the competition.  A little bit of money and some undercover fame (according to Barron, if Jane were to admit authorship, she would no longer be able to eavesdrop at the local dinners and balls which serve as her source material) return Jane to the vivacious woman of the earlier novels.  She may ruefully acknowledge her out of fashion robes and her greying hair, but in a way this is her second debut into society.  Sadly, we know it will be a short-lived social career.  Jane has only four more years to live, and only three more years of health.

The Minotaur

Barbara Vine's mysteries aren't so much 'whodunnit' as 'whydunnit' - she usually frames her books as a present-day retelling of a past event, focusing more on how her characters interact than the actual events.  The Minotaur follows that pattern.  Cartoonist Kirsten Kvist is on vacation in Riva when she sees Ella Costway, a member of the family with which she lived when she first came to England from Sweden.  

As a university student in late 1960s Sweden, Kirsten fell in love with an English student and earned a nursing credential so she could follow him back to England.  He helped her find a job as a nurse/companion to John Cosway, a mathematical genius diagnosed with schizophrenia and living in the family home with his domineering mother and three downtrodden sisters.  It doesn't take long for us to realize that John is not schizophrenic but autistic, and that he's been drugged into a near trance, but the book isn't really about John.  It's about his sisters - resigned housewife-without-being-a-wife Ida, 40ish spinsters Winnifred and Ella, and wealthy widow Zorah who on her periodic visits is the only person who treats John as a sentient being.  During Kirsten's year with the Cosways, Winnifred becomes engaged to the local curate and Ella begins an affair with a loutish artist who's moved into the village.  It's a novel of small things which have major outcomes, and one in which the central events just couldn't happen in today's world of cell phones and internet research.  Miss Marple would enjoy The Minotaur - it's a book for students of human nature.

Burn Out

It's amazing how much younger characters become over the run of a series.  When Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone, her detective was 28 and I was 8 and more than a decade from discovering her.  24 years later, we're about the same age, and I suspect that I will be older than she by the time Muller retires the character.  Some convenient amnesia comes with the Dorian Gray syndrome - McCone's Berkley days and the 20-odd years it took for her brother-in-law to go from a struggling country musician to a superstar have faded over the past several books - but Muller hasn't totally ignored the passage of time.  Once the lone investigator for a legal co-operative, McCone is now the head of a thriving investigative agency with a dozen operatives and little reason to leave her office.

This development (and the particularly nasty case solved in The Ever Running Man), led to the titular Burn Out.  Theoretically pondering her next career move (but in reality nearly paralyzed by depression), McCone has a chance encounter with a young Paiute woman who is murdered a few days later.   McCone investigates, mainly because the victim's uncle is the caretaker for her husband's ranch, and soon finds herself enmeshed in a web of family secrets and small-town intrigue - which somehow connect to a reclusive billionaire.  

Maybe I've become too good at solving mysteries, or maybe it's only a middling detective novel, but I solved this a bit too early for my taste.  Where Burn Out succeeds is as a psychological novel.  Muller slowly (and I think realistically) draws McCone from her depressive state to 'the old Sharon' as she teases apart the puzzle.  I enjoyed watching McCone wake up and begin to solve the day-to-day problems in both her personal and professional life.  It's a mystery novel for people who want more than justice for the dead in their mysteries.