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.