Book Review: The Deception at Lyme
Tor Books, 2011
Readers of Jane Austen’s sublime six novels (a pox on those wayward critics who hint that three of the six are somewhat less sublime) tend to have one general curiosity and six particular ones. The six are natural, almost compulsive: we want to know what happens to each book’s cast of characters after the novel’s done. True, Austen usually gives us a quick synopsis (although sometimes, maddeningly, not), but it’s never enough – the one thing she couldn’t do was guess how profoundly her books work on the rest of us. We always want just one more scene, just one more letter or arch observation, from each particular novel. The more general curiosity floats up unbidden upon re-reading all six books: what would the various characters in each novel have made of each other? The valiant heroes, the clueless in-laws, the fascinating minor characters, and especially the heroines – wouldn’t it be interesting, Janeites have thought for 200 years, if they could all meet and match mettles with each other?
It’s one of those careful-what-you-wish-for things, and Austen fans have had ample reason to cringe, especially in the last 10 years, at the onslaught of Austen-pastiches to flood the market. Dozens, hundreds of writers have tried their hand at telling us what became of Emma Wodehouse or Fanny Price or even poor dim Catherine Morland – and especially what became of Elizabeth Bennet and her brooding husband Mr. Darcy. To call the books in this onslaught uneven in their literary merit would be a phrasing of nearly Austenian delicacy – most of them stink, and collectively they almost stink bad enough to turn you off the originals (readers curious about this phenomenon are bidden to consult the two separate trilogies of “Star Wars” movies).
Such a state of superfluity would seem to bode poorly for author Carrie Bebris, who for years has been writing murder mysteries starring the sleuthing team of Mr. & Mrs. Darcy, whose adventures (with titles like Pride and Prescience, Suspense and Sensibility, and my personal favorite, North by Northanger Abbey) often bring them into contact with the main characters of Austen’s other books. Surely, looking at her latest, The Deception at Lyme (or, The Perils of Persuasion), readers would be justified to cry “enough with the pastiches already!”
I’d ordinarily lead such a cry myself in a fine Irish tenor, but in Bebris’ case, it would be a big mistake. Not because pastiches in general deserve more credit than they get, and not because even mystery authors need to earn a living, but for the simplest, best reason of all: these books are very, very enjoyable. If you haven’t discovered them already, you should do so at once.
Despite other candidates, the first Austen novel that will spring to mind at the sight of a title like The Deception at Lyme will of course be Persuasion, Austen’s last (and in some ways most underestimated) book, so much of the action of which takes place at the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The town features an ancient, windswept sea-wall called the Cobb, a popular tourist attraction for centuries and, in Persuasion, a dangerous one, since it’s there that flighty little Louisa Musgrove takes a near-fatal fall (hence Tennyson’s legendary insistence, on visiting Lyme, that he be shown the exact spot where it happened). She’s nursed at first in the humble home of Captain and Mrs. Harville, who are friends with Captain Frederick Wentworth, who’s in love with Anne Elliot, who’s the daughter of vain, foolish baronet Sir Walter Elliot, who’s been forced to let his ancestral home of Kellynch Hall for a few years in order to ‘retrench’ his finances. Readers of Persuasion will remember Sir Walter with a suppressed snicker (he’s one of those adult characters Austen very, very much wants us to dislike), and they’ll recall that even the vain owner of a debt-encumbered title was still luminous enough to attract two schemers – his cousin Mr. William Elliot, and the thoroughly disreputable Mrs. Clay, who clearly hopes right up until the end of the novel to become Lady Elliot and who we last see found out for her wickedness and under the dubious protection of Mr. Elliot. Anne marries the handsome Captain Wentworth, of course, after reading one of those killer-effective letters Austen’s tongue-tied men always seem to uncork at just the right moment.
In the opening pages of Bebris’ latest, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy (and their 18-month-old daughter Lily Anne) have no sooner arrived at Lyme for a holiday (Elizabeth, Bebris reminds us, has never before seen the sea) – and also to collect the sea-chest of Darcy’s cousin Lieutenant Gerard Fitzwilliam, who died at sea under, of course, mysterious circumstances – than there’s another accident on the Cobb: a woman is found slumped unconscious on the cold stones, and she’s brought to the Harvilles’ nearby home just in time for her to give birth to a healthy baby boy, utter a few cryptic words, and die. The woman, it turns out, is none other than Mrs. Clay – and the snobbish Sir Walter claims the child is his, and the rightful heir to Kellynch. Sir Walter’s kinsman William is equally adamant the child is his (Mrs. Clay herself, in one of Bebris’ many deft, understated comic turns, isn’t mourned by anybody for even an instant). As Elizabeth says of the deceased, “Minds more drawn to scandal than ours might wonder how she came to get married so close to her lying-in that the child was nearly a witness at the wedding, and to have two men claiming paternity.”
The tale that unfolds has many satisfactions. Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth approve of each other’s heroism (when they come upon a child in need of rescuing, they do the decent thing and split the effort 50-50), Elizabeth and Anne (after a curiously muted first meeting) like each other as two of Austen’s best characters should, and there are wonderful moments between Mr. and Mrs. Darcy sprinkled throughout. But the biggest satisfaction of The Deception at Lyme is that it doesn’t rely on brand-name associations – its a very tautly-run and well-done novel all on its own. Bebris has enormous scene-setting ability, a perceptive eye for what to leave out, and best of all, a true gift for keeping a pot-boiler boiling. The book’s only longueurs cluster around the separate mystery of Lieutenant Fitzwilliam, and even they are redeemed in the end, in a genuinely ingenious way even long-time mystery readers may have trouble anticipating.
It’s doubtful Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have approved of all this unseemly sleuthing activity – but you, dear reader, most certainly will.