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Review: JANE AND THE FINAL MYSTERY by Stephanie Barron

Updated: Jan 17


Author Stephanie Barron has written her “Being a Jane Austen Mystery” series for more than two decades, the first published in 1996. Jane and the Final Mystery begins in the spring of 1817, and Jane Austen died in July of that year at age forty-one. As a known Janeite and enthusiast of this series that parallels Austen's adult life—and knowing the sad truth of what is to come—I have been in bittersweet anticipation for this last novel.


Barron’s gift to write in a very Austenesque manner, her astute understanding of the mores of the times, and her exacting research of locales and the Regency mirrors Austen’s voice in this fictional work. Yes, fictional. I must remind myself that this series is more proof of Barron’s genius. Her expertise in the genre leads readers to wonder, Is this true? Did that really happen? She is The Incomparable when it comes to Regency mysteries—often imitated but never duplicated. Given that disclaimer of my bona fides as a Stephanie Barron fan and holding the series in much esteem, I feel quite at liberty to share my impressions herein.


ABOUT THE BOOK

Over the course of fourteen previous novels in the critically acclaimed "Being a Jane Austen Mystery" series, Stephanie Barron has won the hearts of thousands of fans—crime fiction aficionados and Janeites alike—with her tricky plotting and breathtaking evocation of Austen’s voice. Now, she brings Jane’s final season—and final murder investigation—to brilliant, poignant life in this unforgettable conclusion.


March 1817: As winter turns to spring, Jane Austen’s health is in slow decline, and threatens to cease progress on her latest manuscript. But when her nephew Edward brings chilling news of a death at his former school, Winchester College, not even her debilitating ailment can keep Jane from seeking out the truth. Arthur Prendergast, a senior pupil at the prestigious all-boys’ boarding school, has been found dead in a culvert near the schoolgrounds—and in the pocket of his drenched waistcoat is an incriminating note penned by the young William Heathcote, the son of Jane’s dear friend Elizabeth. Winchester College is a world unto itself, with its own language and rites of passage, cruel hazing, and dangerous pranks. Can Jane clear William’s name before her illness gets the better of her?


REVIEW by Christina Boyd

Thus begins Jane and the Final Mystery as Jane exposes whodunit in this fifteenth and final of Stephanie Barron’s mystery series. Though Jane is dangerously ill and continues to tire quickly, she comes to support her dear friend, Elizabeth Bigg-Wither Heathcote, formerly of Manydown, and endeavors to unravel the minacious web against William Heathcote.

She glanced at me sidelong. “Thank Heaven, you do not abuse me as an hysterick. For nearly three years, Will has been subject to relentless attacks on his spirit, his mind, and his sanity in the world.”
“You suggest something more profound and malevolent than the abuse he endures, on account of his regrettable speech defect?” p.68.

Likening to Austen’s quality prose, Barron excels in credible dialog. Miss Austen’s voice, told from this fictional Jane Austen’s point-of-view, nearly echoes off the page.

“I see now why you figured as a great general of Gabell’s,” I said admiringly. “Like Wellington, you are a keen strategist…”
“As to that—were it not for the danger Will finds himself in, I should regard this as a fine lark, and plunge in with vigour! I might even turn to the study of Law. The work of a solicitor should offer more scope for imagination and variety than that of a clergyman.”
“Are those your only alternatives?” I asked gently. “You cannot dedicate yourself to writing?”
Edward laughed brusquely. “I doubt I have the necessary talent to make a success of that.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Do you regard me as a frivolous flatterer? I do not offer praise lightly, my dear. When I tell you I enjoy and admire your sketches—so different to my own little bit of ivory, on which I work with so fine a brush—I am sincere, you know. I do not seek to puff you up with nonsense.” p. 136.

With lives, fortunes, and reputations in the balance, Barron casts a few red herrings that I confess kept me confounded until the last. Even at the inquiry, I almost, almost but not quite, suspected young Heathcote.

“You left the school?”
“I d-d-did.”
Elizabeth drew an audible breath.
“At what hour?”
“I qu-qu-qitted Gabell’s House a qu-qu-quarter before the hour of f-f-four o’clock.”
“And where did you go?”
“I c-c-cannot say, sir.”
“William,” Elizabeth murmured in agony beside me.
“Come, come, Master Heathcote. You are required to answer my questions truthfully and fully.”
Will compressed his lips, his countenance appallingly white.
“You refuse to answer?”
Again, not a word passed William’s lips. pp.107-108.

Excellent world building, engaging characters, and thought-provoking prose, I found this fifteenth book more page-turning intrigue than the maudlin literature I half-expected. But I recommend having a handkerchief nearby to dab at your eyes—just in case. You need not read the previous novels to be excessively diverted by Jane and the Final Mystery. Still, from one who has read this epic series in order, you’re shortchanging yourself if you don’t read them all. Oh! And why “Being a Jane Austen Mystery” isn’t a Netflix series already is beyond me.


I'll put this out into the universe one more time. As I have said before, I want Stephanie Barron to write a dual-era series next, titled “The Gentleman Rogue.” A contemporary woman discovers a trunk of Lord Harold’s papers and… Who’s with me?


PRAISE FOR JANE AND THE FINAL MYSTERY

• “Poignant . . . Elicits deep emotion out of Jane’s struggles against her own mortality. This is a fitting send-off for a beautifully realized series.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review


• “Barron developed Jane’s narrative voice by reading Austen’s collected and published letters, and it is neither spoiler nor surprise to say that series readers will be sorry to say goodbye to Jane Austen, amateur sleuth.”—Booklist


• "[Barron] has brilliantly combined authentic historical and biographical details with skillful plotting and a credible evocation of Austen’s wry, distinctive voice. She brings the English author’s final investigation to a poignant, unforgettable close. Fans of this historical series will not be disappointed.”—First Clue

 

PURCHASE LINKS

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Barron is a graduate of Princeton and Stanford, where she received her master's in history as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in the Humanities. Her novel, That Churchill Woman (Ballantine, January 22, 2019) traces the turbulent career of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's captivating American mother. Barron is perhaps best known for the critically acclaimed "Being a Jane Austen Mystery" series, in which the intrepid and witty author of Pride and Prejudice details her secret detective career in Regency England. A former intelligence analyst for the CIA, Stephanie—who also writes under the name Francine Mathews—drew on her experience in the field of espionage for such novels as Jack 1939, which The New Yorker described as "the most deliciously high-concept thriller imaginable." She lives and works in Denver, CO.

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2 Comments


Sophia Rose
Sophia Rose
Oct 19, 2023

I stumbled on this series when it first released and have been a big fan since. This was a bittersweet read for me, too. Great review, Christina!

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Christina Boyd
Christina Boyd
Oct 19, 2023
Replying to

Thanks, Sophia. Would you believe that my husband read her books first? And raved how I needed to read the books.

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