Our narrator, 28-year old Elizabeth Parker, reveals her personality upfront when she tells us that “probably” if she had known an annoying man was about to be murdered, she wouldn’t have “fantasized” about killing him herself (1).
Elizabeth is someone to whom most of us can easily relate—an American for whom “facial neutrality” is not an option and who scoffs at any suggestion that there could be “such a thing as too much Masterpiece Theatre,” heading to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, dreaming about “red telephone boxes, gorgeous accents” and Colin Firth (17, 45, 2). So imagine how you would feel if, on your flight to the festival, your ears were tortured by some arrogant professor spouting his view that Austen’s work is really a “forceful condemnation of the sanctimonious hypocrisy of both society and the church” (4). Before his demise, Professor Richard Baines seems to think Austen is really talking about “sordid” sex, “abortions, and incest,” but “only the truly clever reader” sees all that (1). Austen’s works, he says, “are really a kind of early manifesto for the ideals of communism,” and Austen “herself was an atheist” (5). Richard wears a pinkie ring. ‘Nough said. No wonder our heroine and her aunt order Chardonnay immediately.
Winnie Reynolds, great-aunt of heroine Elizabeth, is more than a match for Professor Richard Baines and engages him in discussion of his absurd claims because she is bored (9). Even Elizabeth joins in because really, could any of us stay quiet in the face of claims like Mr. Tilney is an accomplice to the murder of his mother and that’s why the novel is called “NorthANGER Abbey” ? (10) Or Sir Walter Eliot is sexually involved with his daughter Elizabeth? Or Marianne had a botched abortion, and that’s why she got sick? (3)
Before the murder mystery begins, we have the mystery of who (in this story) is who (in Jane Austen). I suspected that Cora Beadle, an old friend of Winnie’s, is the Mrs. Thorpe, but when her beautiful, poised daughter Izzy grabs Elizabeth’s hand and squeals, “Oh, I just knew when I saw you that you and I would be the best of friends,” I knew she was Isabella Thorpe (24). She, too, has strange interpretations of Austen’s work, including the idea that Austen meant us to take Charlotte Lucas’ advice about showing more affection that Jane feels seriously (27). Izzy is also like Miss Thorpe in her dramatic exaggerations (“I’ve been waiting forever!”) and professed annoyance with “horrible men” she claims are “gawking” at her (47). That link should help prepare the reader for a key plot twist later, but even still, I was as surprised as Elizabeth is. John Ragget is immediately suspicious; why does he say he has been coming to the festival “for the last fifteen years at least” if it didn’t exist then (53)? He’s our stand-in for John Thorpe, immediately bragging about his mode of transport and how much it cost, using expletives unsuitable for ladies’ ears on first acquaintance (he “paid through the bloody nose” for his jaguar convertible, “but, damn it, [he] didn’t care!” 53). For a while, I wondered if Byron might be Wickham. Together, he and Elizabeth politely mock the loquacious Mr. Ragget (now Mr. Collins?). These links work in so many different ways!
As for the murder mystery, Kiely gives the reader many clues early on, like Cora reacting so violently to news of the professor’s latest theory about what killed Austen that she actually says she will “kill the son of a bitch” (31). But that’s too obvious, right? Why does Izzy first blame and then mock her mom when Cora’s purse goes missing? So many people have motives: the professor’s drugged ex-wife who thinks he’s hiding money from her, his assistant who is angry and seems jealous of his wife, his daughter-in-law who is basically Mrs. John Dashwood, Cora who hates his theories, and even Cora’s daughter Izzy who does differently from what she says and disappears in the middle of the ball. It looks like Alex (the professor’s new wife) yanked Richard out of the room to his death, but given that minutes before, she acted so loving to him and that a bunch of them have Ehle or Colin masks, maybe that wasn’t her. John’s mouth hangs “open in apparent surprise” when Izzy reveals that Elizabeth has solved several murder cases (144). Is he just annoying, or is he worried? Usually wise Aunt Winnie goes on and on with details about the cases, and Elizabeth mistakes the “faintly horrified expression” on his face as simple disapproval (144). Then the plot really thickens. There are THREE women who have been (and or currently are) sleeping with this professor, and one of them is with child.
The narrator is funny but in a clever way (sample: the instructions John gives for the valet so border “on the absurd that they might as well have included, “Rub it with a diaper” and “Don’t make eye contact with it” 181). Sample: Valerie’s clearing of her throat in a microphone is “still preferable to what came next, as Valerie bleated out the lyrics . . . in elevated octaves normally associated with amorous chipmunks” (195). As for Patrick Bronte’s painting of his sisters, our narrator amusingly comments, “you didn’t need to be a student of the Brontës’ work to know they weren’t a cheerful bunch. That portrait alone makes it quite clear that a generous dose of antidepressants would have done that family wonders” (21). These characters—Elizabeth and Winnie and Cora and Izzy in particular—are so well versed in Austen that they use lines from the novel in similar situations in their own lives. (For instance, “l thought Valerie sang very ill tonight,’ observed Aunt Winnie . . . ‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘Poor Valerie. But she is determined to do it'” 200). So when we aren’t reading clever original Kiely lines, we’re reading clever original Austen ones. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
I know Elizabeth has recently solved multiple mysteries, but I still thought it was weird that her boyfriend Peter cautions her from a world away that, with her luck, “someone will kill this Richard guy, and [she’ll] get all caught up in another murder investigation” (58). Nonetheless, Peter seems wiser than we might realize, and when we finally meet him and Elizabeth realizes that he is totally “the one,” I chuckled to learn that of course her perfect boyfriend wears Burberry cologne (290).