Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie
Or how Mansfield Park got a murderous makeover
An isolated country house, a family that conceals its passions and rivalries under a veneer of upper-class civility, a charismatic outsider whose arrival brings these tensions into the open, and sparks a train of ultimately disastrous events. An archetypal Agatha Christie? Or perhaps a PD James? Surely not Jane Austen? But in fact this is exactly the mise-en-scène at the beginning of Mansfield Park, Austen’s most serious and probably least liked novel. And it was realising this – seeing how close Austen’s scenario comes to that of the classic English country house mystery – that first gave me the idea of making a murder of Mansfield Park.
My love of classic detective fiction is almost as great as my love of classic literary fiction, which is why it was such a labour of love to bring the two together. All the same, it did present two completely different challenges – one, to write the book in a way that would pass muster with even the most ardent Austen aficionado, and two, to create a genuinely satisfying mystery, that would keep people guessing until the very last chapter.
Aping authentic Austen…
The Austen aspect of that involved downloading all her novels and pretty much checking every word as I went along, to make sure I was using only those words in use at the time, and doing so in the correct context. ‘Atmosphere’, for example, does appear in Austen’s novels, but only ever in association with the weather, and never in connection with mood or ambience. It’s getting that sort of thing right that makes all the difference. Things did get more challenging, though, once I got to the murder. No-one ever dies from anything other than natural causes in Austen’s novels, so as soon as violence intruded on the elegant Regency landscape I needed a wholly new vocabulary to describe it. My saviour, as it turned out, was Samuel Richardson, the ‘father of the English novel’, and Jane Austen’s own literary hero. His tragic masterpiece, Clarissa, is a story of abduction and rape that explores far darker psychological territory than anything Austen ever attempts, as well as showing us the seamier underside of eighteenth-century London.
… and devising a decent death
As for the mechanics of the mystery, a lot of readers ask me if I knew who the killer and the victim would be before I started, and the answer is most definitely ‘yes’. I don’t know how other writers do it, but I had a very detailed synopsis, that I pretty much stuck to right the way through. Though every now and again a character did surprise me, and Henry Crawford, in particular, turned out to be far more complex than I’d originally foreseen. After that it was all about writing the book forwards, from the beginning, and ‘backwards’ from the end, making sure that as many people as possible had a good motive, and as many of them as possible could have been in the right place at the right time, with both means and opportunity.
I suppose the country house murder format must be in my blood, because it wasn’t till I started to get invited to speak about Murder at Mansfield Park at festivals that it even occurred to me to do some research on it. It was only then that I discovered that the genre has a name I’d never heard of – the ‘cozy’. The standard Crime Classics definition is astonishingly close to the description I just gave of Mansfield Park (as it is, indeed, to Austen’s own much-quoted description of her own fictional domain as “three or four families in a country village”): in other words, “members of a closed group, often in a country house or village, who become suspects in a generally bloodless and neat murder solved by a great-detective kind of investigator.“
Not so ‘cozy’ after all?
As this definition suggests, country house ‘cozies’ rarely involved much real violence, and focused instead on presenting the reader with an intellectual puzzle, which they (and the ‘great-detective’) could solve by applying observation, an understanding of human nature, and a willingness to listen to local gossip. If this sounds uncannily like Jane Marple, or Hercule Poirot, then that’s no great surprise, Agatha Christie being the indisputable mistress of the whole genre. But by 1930 the cozy had become so popular – and so many second-rate specimens were appearing – that a group of the more reputable writers set up The Detection Club, which committed its members to construct plots that did not rely on “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or the Act of God”.
A year or so before that, Ronald Knox, the priest and crime writer, had laid down his own ‘Ten Commandments of Detection’, designed to ensure that readers had at least a fighting chance of solving the crime before the Big Reveal. Reading these rules now definitely raises a smile, but they will still appeal to anyone (like me) who’s been irritated by all those modern murder stories, where the perpetrator turns out to be someone who doesn’t even make an appearance until the last twenty pages:
- The criminal must be mentioned early on
- Supernatural solutions are ruled out
- Only one secret room or passage is allowed
- No undiscovered poisons are permitted
- The detective must not be helped by lucky accidents or intuitions
- The detective must not himself commit the crime
- Nor must he conceal clues from the reader
- The thoughts of the ‘Watson’ figure must not be concealed
The last two are my particular favourites: there must be special warning of the use of twin brothers or doubles, and no Chinamen should appear in the story
I imagine you won’t be surprised to hear that Murder at Mansfield Park conforms to all of these (Chinamen and doubles included!), though there are two key aspects to my book that do set it apart from the conventional cozy. One is that there is, in fact, some very real violence. And the other is while the detective in a cozy is almost always from the same social class as the people being investigated, in mine the detective is a ‘thief taker’ from London, who could hardly be more out of place in the civilised surroundings of a Jane Austen novel.
CSI Mansfield Park
As we all know, London had no official police force until 1829, and in rural areas it was a lot later than that. So if you were the victim of a serious crime in 1811, when my novel is set, you’d have only had the local parish constable to turn to – someone who would have borne very little resemblance to his modern namesake, and would probably have never faced anything more serious than petty theft or cattle rustling. Newspaper advertisements and offers of rewards might produce results, but if not, your only other alternative was to hire a thief taker, or bounty hunter, to investigate on your behalf. Thief taking dated back to the 17th century, and its proponents were often little better than the criminals they claimed to pursue. But with the establishment of the Bow Street Runners in 1748, detection started to become a lot more professional. My Charles Maddox is a former Runner who’s made a great deal of money at his chosen profession, but while he may dress like a gentlemen, and look like a gentleman, he’s certainly not hamstrung by the same social niceties, and can turn “the iron constraints of politeness and decorum” to his own advantage in the pursuit of the truth.
One other aspect of Murder at Mansfield Park that surprised me was how many standard ingredients of a modern detective novel or police drama were finding a natural place in my Regency equivalent. For example, I have a version of a post mortem scene that’s definitely not for the squeamish, I have Maddox using a portrait where we’d now expect a photograph, as well as conducting a whole sequence of one-to-one interrogations. The other wonderful thing about writing a murder mystery set in 1811 but published 200 years later, is that you can assume a huge amount of knowledge on your reader’s part. My readers are the CSI generation – you don’t need to be a forensic scientist to know about blood types, DNA, fingerprints, and all the other even more rarefied techniques now employed to track people down. I had a lot of fun with dramatic irony here – for example, at one point I have the slightly scatter-brained Mrs Grant wonder out loud, “If only it were possible to tell for certain who had handled that mattock. Then it would all be cleared up in a matter of moments.” To which her pompous and self-important husband gives “a smile that expressed all the indulgence of self-amusement in the face of feminine irrationality,” before saying, “Now you really are growing fanciful.”
I started this piece with a reference to PD James, and I can’t finish it without picking up on what she says about Austen in her excellent Talking about Detective Fiction. She focuses on Emma, rather than Mansfield Park, describing how Austen sets the action within the “closed society in a rural setting, which was to become common in detective fiction”, and then sows cleverly constructed clues about the real state of affairs between the key characters. It’s exactly what I’ve tried to do in my own book, and I only hope that my readers will have the same experience James describes at the end of Emma, “when all becomes plain and… we wonder how we could have been so deceived.”
This post originally appeared in November 2010 on the Harrogate Crime Writing website http://www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/yourebooked/2010/11/jane-austen-meets-agatha-christie/