Regina Jeffers that I did not enjoy. She beautifully captures Austen's tone, represents her characters with authentic accuracy, and while she incorporates more sexuality than I am typically comfortable with, she does so in an allusive manner, thereby sparing my sensibilities (and Elizabeth and Darcy's privacy). Second, The Phantom of Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Murder Mystery might just be her best novel to date. I was completely entranced by the story, astounded I could not solve the mystery before Ms. Jeffers chose to reveal it, and ready to start it over from the beginning once I reached the end (an indulgence time, unfortunately, did not allow). Regular readers of this blog know that I reread my favorite Austenesque novels aloud with my husband. This book is now at the top of our to-be-recited list.
I do not want to provide any spoilers, as Ms. Jeffers goes to great lengths to protect the culprit's identity, but I will say that lunacy is involved, and I am and always have been a sucker for any story involving insanity. This might be due to the unfortunate fact that I have the honor of being related to more than one crazy person (I mean that very literally), but regardless, the subject has always fascinated me, since I first read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden in middle school through the time when I chose the Victorian madwoman as the subject for my English Honors thesis in college. As I pursued The Phantom of Pemberley, it became increasingly clear that the murderers were far from mentally stable, and my inability to put the novel down increased. It is not often that mental illness gets to take such a central role in JAFF, as Austen certainly never explored the topic (at least not directly, though her texts implicitly reject physiognomy, the leading "science" of mental diagnosis at that time, and C.S. Lewis made a pretty compelling case that, in Persuasion, she anticipates the psychoanalytic conceptions later developed by Freud).
So now that I've rambled a bit about my favorite topic, let us explore what The Phantom of Pemberley is actually about. The Darcys have been married for a year. Lydia Wickham, already well aware of the mistake she made in marrying George Wickham, travels to Pemberley to indulge in the luxuries she herself cannot afford. As if a visit from Lydia wasn't enough of a strain on the Darcys, her arrival is immediately precipitated by the unannounced arrival of Lady Catherine and her daughter, Anne de Bourgh, the former demanding Darcy's assistance in extricating the latter from an unacceptable attachment. The situation is further complicated by a massive snow storm. When the Darcys arrive in Lambton to collect Lydia from the mail coach, they find an inn unable to to house the many stranded travelers seeking accommodations. These include Lydia's travelling companions, a Mr. Nigel Worth and a Mrs. Williams, as well as a previous, though slight, acquaintance of Darcy's: the Viscount of Stafford, Adam Lawrence. Darcy feels compelled to offer hospitality to the latter despite the fact that he is traveling with his mistress,Cathleen Donnel (introduced to the ladies as his cousin). Lydia, in turn, practically insists that Mr. Worth and Mrs. Williams are also included in the Pemberley party. Needless to say, with the house filled with virtual strangers and barely tolerable relations, mayhem ensues.
All blame for subsequent events, however, cannot be laid at the foot of the Darcys' guests. Even before their arrival, a strange man is spotted on the grounds and household items disappear. The servants attribute these strange occurrences to a local legend of the "shadow people", which Elizabeth and Darcy dismiss as superstitious nonsense. Still, as the murders and attacks multiply without any rational explanation for how or why they are being perpetrated, logical answers elude the inhabitants of Pemberley. Is one the the guests responsible, or, perhaps, one of the servants? Ms. Jeffers keeps us guessing until almost the very end of the story, displaying a mastery of mystery her previous books gave no indication she possessed. I highly recommend this novel to all and challenge anyone to put it down once begun. It is one of the best Austensque novels I have read all year.