Monday, March 8, 2010

The Intrigue at Highbury by Carrie Bebris

I just wasted (questionable term) the better part of the day reading Carrie Bebris' latest Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mystery, The Intrigue at Highbury, largely because I could not put it down. While I have enjoyed the entire series, which is lots of fun, this volume is by far Ms. Bebris' best. What make this book so superior to the rest? Three things.

First, unlike the other books in the series, this book is not entirely told from the Darcy's perspective, giving the Knightley's not just a supporting but a staring role. I am always happy to while away my time with the Darcys, but the further integration of the Emma cast of characters (and not just one or two, but all the residents of Highbury) makes this book particularly interesting. After all, the felicity of the Darcy's company can only be improved by the addition of the Knightley's.

Second, the themes Austen employs in Emma are in full force here, unlike Ms. Bebris' other adaptations, which typically involve elements of mysticism that are certainly not native to our beloved Jane. Gypsies, blunders, riddles, and (dare I quote the title?) intrigue were already there, ready and waiting to be expanded into a murder mystery. This grounds the book much more in the reality Austen created than its predecessors.

Third, Emma, being something of a detective novel in the first place, is particularly suited to Ms. Bebris' style of adaptation. The fact that many of the characters have already been implicated in manipulation and deceit further adds to the mystery, keeping the reader open minded about the potential culprit even after the solution has presented itself. And if multiple rereads of Emma hasn't taught you to pay particular attention to the information conveyed in Miss Bates' seemingly meaningless prattle, this book will remind you of your folly.

I was particularly impressed with Ms. Bebris' blending of period prejudices towards Gypsies and the modern, cultural recognition of Roma. I was a bit uncomfortable at the beginning of the book with her adoption of strictly dated preconceptions towards this deeply misunderstood and maligned race, though was able to rationalize it as historically accurate. When she began employing terms like Roma, let alone legitimate Romani terminology, all without the imposition of modern sensibilities, I was not only gratified but awed.

Are there problems with this book? Yes. It makes me wonder if Ms. Bebris, like so many others before her, harbors a dislike of Emma which is revealed in the text. Not that Emma is portrayed in a vile manner, but she appears a silly young woman, still overly concerned with appearances and matchmaking, not having retained the lessons she learned after meddling in her neighbors' lives. Also, neither she nor Mr. Knightley are endowed with the sharp and intelligent discourse that makes both characters so attractive. Then again, while she makes a stab at capturing the Darcys' verbal prowess, it also falls short, and she has had five novels in which to try and perfect it.

This is a rushed review, as I really have neglected what I should have been doing today, but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they were fresh. I highly recommend this book and suspect that even those who haven't been fond of Ms. Bebris' earlier books will find much to enjoy here. If nothing else, it's a romp through Highbury - always a pleasure.


  1. This was my first Mr & Mrs Darcy Mystery and I found it a delightful reading. I couldn't put it down either and read it in a couple of days.

  2. Hi Maria. It's worthwhile reading the entire series, as you probably didn't get the references to previous books (though they are not essential to the plot). All are fun, but this was certainly my favorite so far.

  3. Mmmm. I had a really bad first impression (hah) of the first book in the series, it being among many other reasons the impetus for me to leave/get kicked out of So I've not continued further. The specific elements I objected to were, first and foremost, the rather obnoxious, areligiously presented (whether Austen was explicitly so, she was very much a clergyman's daughter, and such things would have had their place, as in, bad) spiritualistic elements. Secondly irritating were the vulgarities and completely out-of-characterizations.

    I suppose my emotional entanglements of the time and associations are somewhat unfair to splice in with my dislike of the book. But I do so dislike them. Though I'm not sure about the merit of the mystery/Austen mashup any more than the monsters ones - the Austen mysteries by Barron make my teeth hurt with their lazy plotting and absolutely appalling writing.

  4. ibmiller - Were you really kicked out of I would love to hear that story.

    I have avoided Barron's books because I think I wont like them, so I can't fairly compare them to Bebris' work, but this volume, as I said in the post, has none of those odd spiritual moments/explanations that mark the other books, which is one of the reasons I prefer it to its predecessors. If you are ever going to give the series another try, this is definitely the book to read, though I imagine that you, like me, wont be very satisfied with her portrayal of Emma, which is pretty flat.

  5. Sort of. I posted a couple things that irritated one of the mods, and she sent me a long email blasting me for being a lazy, rude young dude. Then they were doing the first Bebris book, and I was really upset at the mysticism (I was seventeen) and PMed the head mod to ask if I could talk about religion just once, and she emailed me a long PM blasting me for being a evil evil poster. Add to that the frustration I had with how the mods played favorites with rude posters (rather like what happened about three years ago at Austenblog, which thankfully has degraded so much that I feel vindicated for not caring about it anymore), and I left. But the two extremely nasty emails could sort of qualify as "kicking out" - the intent to make me go away was clear.

    Barron's books are very annoying - doubly so to me as an Austen and a mystery fan. Not only does she portray Austen as an incompetant detective (one of the murders I solved on the second page, and I usually never figure out the solution until the very end, and Austen dithers about until the solution is accidentally revealed), but she also cribs off th villains' speeches for her heros' declarations of love (a double offense, since I believe Austen could both make up her own love speeches and not be forced to take them from villains, of all people). Not to mention the many love interests for Austen...

    Hmmm. I wish more published Austen sequels had a richer view of Emma. Aiken's Jane Fairfax seems to set the mood with her fat and mean Emma, and then Billington and Tennant make her bored with Mr. Knightley. Add to that The Importance of Being Emma making her a bodice-ripped hellion (and George into "Mark", and very randy), and many others that were too painful for me to even finish. Arg. Emma is a better, more complex character! She deserves to be written better.

    I know, I know, I can always reread the phenomenal characterization in the original. But I feel that Emma deserves to be better than the Darcys' second.

  6. How very inhospitable! I keep getting in to trouble because of my assumption that all Austen fans are superior creatures. It is always disheartening when they prove otherwise.

    As for being the Darcy's second, I will reemphasize what I said in the post, that the Knightley's have a much larger role in this book than any of Austen's other characters are given in the earlier volumes. There is something very natural about the idea that the Darcys and Knightley becoming good friends, were they ever to meet. If you ever feel like giving Bebris another shot, I still maintain that this is the book with which to do it. Emma is a bit flat, as I said before, but the portrayal isn't offensive, just disappointing.

  7. Indeed. I'm always saddened to meet the type of Janeite who thinks they should follow after Austen's darker impulses, rather than the mature, kinder, intelligently sympathetic ones.

    And your recommendation puts this book of Bebris' back on the "might read at some point" list. Before today, they were on "HATE HATE DISLIKE DOES NOT WANT never read again attack online whenever see the chance to..."

    Good to hear the Emma is only flat - I don't need to see a lesbian Emma, or an Emma who's bored with Mr. Knightley. Emma and Knightley have perfect happiness, says so right there at the end of the book :-)

  8. If I decreased the amount hatred you are suffering from, I feel like I have indeed accomplished a good deed.

  9. I am so very glad you enjoyed this book as much as I did, Alexa! And your review is so intelligent and concise, there seems nothing rushed or neglected about it! You expressed exactly how I felt about the book, but with much more clarity and insight!

    Didn't you just love the epilogue?

  10. Hi Meredith! Yes, that hint about being persuadable was tantalizing, wasn't it? I thought you employed ample clarity and insight in your own review - it certainly increased my anxiety to get my hand on the book!