Friday, April 20, 2012

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd, a Book Review

I read Murder at Mansfield Park for two reasons: 1) Fyrefly liked The Solitary House, which is also by Lynn Shepherd but was not in the library at the time and 2) The murder victim in Murder at Mansfield Park is Fanny Price. Seriously, who hasn't read Mansfield Park and had vaguely homicidal urges(1)?

Sadly, Fanny's demise is the best the novel has to offer. In replacing Fanny with Marry Crawford as the resident "good woman," Shepherd has simply swapped one banal character for another. Mary is described as level-headed, practical, and indispensable to Charle's Maddox's investigation of the murder, but, other than one observation about the state of Fanny's body, actually does little that qualifies her for any of these adjectives, many of which are rather oddly placed. For example, upon finding Fanny's body, Mary promptly faints and remains unconscious for a good, long spell, recovering just in time to stagger out to hear Edmund and his brother wondering who ought to prepare the body and mention her as an option since, "there is no one so steady, so capable..." as Mary, a "woman of rare strength of mind." While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a heroine fainting upon finding a body, I would never use this as demonstrating strength of mind, capability, or prudence. Her heroic decision to quietly go and wash Fanny's body did little to convince me of anything much, though I was surprised Maddox never mentioned any variation on "tampering with the evidence" to her in any of their conversations.

I had difficulty believing in either the love between her and Edmund or the attraction between her and Maddox, both being more stated than showing in development.

Also, while Shepherd writes reasonably Austenian prose, she does this in part by mining Austen's books and letters for phrases, and I found this awkward at times: Having Mary and Edmund echo the conversation between Elizbeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam on the care young men must take in marrying makes some sense: Like Colonel Fitzwilliam, Edmund can't necessarily bothy marry the woman he loves and maintain the life of a gentleman. On the other hand, the near-echo of the conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy at the ball made no sense whatsoever: Mary has no reason to wish to "vex" Edmund. I confess, I got quite dizzy at times trying to track these echoes. They also gave the text a somewhat stilted air.

What's that? How will someone who doesn't read Austen like it? Probably not much. There is too little character or relationship development happening to make anyone particularly interesting. We're told that Mary gradually realizes that Edmund isn't the stuffed shirt she and Henry first thought he was, but we don't see her finding it out, much less witness any actions or speeches on his part that lead to her undying love for him. The same is true of Maddox's fascination with Mary (and her belated attraction to him): It's stated, not shown. This makes it hard to care whether or not either pairing happens (though Maddox makes the better proposal).

My verdict? Pass. I will still be trying The Solitary House, however. It was written later and may very well be a stronger book. Also, despite my disappointment with Murder at Mansfield Park, I am curious to see how Shepherd handled Bleak House.

(1)I must confess, I have not exactly read Mansfield Park. It was more a case of crossly skimming it and throwing it down periodically. I still own a copy which I feel I really ought to read. Some day. Maybe.

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