This is the final novel in Carrie Bebris’ Mr and Mrs Darcy mystery series and is one of the two Jane Austen continuation series that I have loved dipping into. For those new to the series, each book is based in the world of one of Jane Austen’s novels, though as the series’ progresses some characters overlap. The first two novels in the series are mystery novels in quite a loose sense of the word, so very keen mystery fans may not appreciate them as much, though they are useful for getting to grips with some of the recurring characters and are well written. However, from book 3 onwards, North by Northanger (2006), the mystery element becomes much more dominant and both the Darcys grow into their amateur sleuthing role, coming across various mysteries in their travels. Normally with this series I have enjoyed comparing the characters as they are in Austen’s work, to how they come across in Bebris’ novels (and on the whole I would say she skilfully transfers and recreates them), but since I have not read Austen’s half-finished novel, Sanditon, I went into this novel with little prior knowledge as to the expected setting and characters.
The story opens with Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy going to visit Sanditon, (a village whose inhabitants are hoping to develop it into a seaside resort), in order to decide on whether a relative of theirs should invest in the scheme. They also have the additional task of keeping a watchful eye over a mutual friend’s daughter, Charlotte Heywood. They receive a warm welcome from the village’s most eager developer, Thomas Parker and soon become acquainted with his various siblings. In addition they promptly receive an invitation to dine with 11 others at Sanditon House, a grand establishment owned by Lady Philadelphia Denham, who has been twice widowed and it is at this dinner that the mystery gets underway, as their hostess never turns up. As a search begins inside and outside the property an expected storm finally breaks, leaving the guests marooned at Sanditon House.
The stressfulness of the situation is exacerbated by who Lady Denham invited to the dinner, as the Darcys, as well as others soon ruminate on the reasons why other guests have an invested interest in causing or utilising Lady Denham’s disappearance for their own ends. For instance there is Lady Denham’s niece and nephew by marriage, who have recently lost favour. There is also the very disagreeable and unpleasant Josiah Holland, a relative from Lady Denham’s first marriage, whose behaviour brings him quickly under suspicion. Even Thomas Parker is not a disinterested party, given the role Lady Denham is playing in the development of the village. What makes this story work so well is that it mostly takes place during the night of the dinner party and the tension racks up as more and more guests begin to disappear. It becomes hard to know who to trust and who to be suspicious of and you even begin to wonder whether all the disappearances are involuntary. Added into this chaos is a missing piece of paper, a mysterious ransom note and the story of the ghost of the hermit’s daughter. Due to their outsider status the Darcys soon take charge of the situation, though as the story remarks organising this motley group of guests into action is ‘akin to herding cats.’
As with Juanita Sheridan’s The Waikiki Widow (1953), this was another good finish to a series. I enjoyed the departure in style, in that unlike the other novels this one takes place mostly during one night and given the nature of the plot, this time frame helped to maintain tension and a good pace. The characterisation was also strong as it is in the other books and was in keeping with the casts of characters found in Austen’s own works. There are Thomas Parker’s two sisters, who although are meant to suffer from ill health a lot, bustle with busyness and are do-gooders, though not in a way good way, with most of the recipients of their help far from appreciating it. There is also the dashing Sidney Parker, who soon makes at least one female heart flutter, but as is so often in the work of Jane Austen, can such a smooth talker and charmer be trusted? Lady Denham is also a very Austen type character, being in the Lady Catherine mould. Furthermore, as in Northanger Abbey where Austen critiques novel readers, questioning those who confuse the world of fiction with reality in characters such as Catherine Morland, Carrie Bebris similarly shows us in the character of Sir Edward Denham a poor form of reader and the consequences this can lead to. Bebris’ writing style is another strength of this book and the series as a whole, as it is in keeping with the regency setting and Austen’s own style, but is not inaccessible. Themes of new vs. old money and adherence to social rules and dictates also weave a thread through the story. The complexity of the characters means that the full truth of what happened that night is withheld until near the end and it is interesting to see how certain characters are shaped and changed by the experiences they undergo. Finally I also came across an invention I had never heard of before, the chamber horse, of which there is one in Sanditon house, brought there by Lady Denham’s first husband. This is not a children’s toy, like a rocking horse, but was a form of indoor exercise when the weather was too bad to go outside. Users of this device would bounce up and down on the spring boarded apparatus, which in theory was meant to simulate the act of horse riding. It just seemed a wonderfully bizarre thing to me and was a nice nugget of social history. So given my rating below I would definitely recommend this book, especially to fans of Jane Austen’s work. Diving straight into this book without reading the others is possible I would say, though more may be gained by starting with some of the previous books to get a greater feel for the serial characters.