Murder Most Literary

Jane and the Waterloo Map, by Stephanie Barron, (Soho Press), 320 pages, release date 2 February, 2016

Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary, by M. L. Lee (Endeavor Press), 303 pages, release date 28 January, 2016

I’m always eager for a historical mystery, particularly one featuring real-world characters. I’ve read two recently, neither of which was”high literature,” but both of which offered a delightful escape from ordinary life. Jane and the Waterloo Map features Jane Austen as the heroine, and is set shortly after the British victory at Waterloo. Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary features an eponymous central character and takes place shortly after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Both of these mysteries, while they make light reading, feature moments of historical importance, times when Britain saw threats from within, as well as without. This insight into particular historical moments gives a note of seriousness to both titles, which can be used as entrées into their particular historical moments.

Jane Austen makes an enjoyable heroine. She’s smart and self-determined, but also a character of her time, frustrated by the common views of her gender and by her own desire for “ordinary,” as well as literary, life. The novel opens as Jane faces a conundrum. The Prince Regent George the Fourth (George the Third has been temporarily removed from the throne because of his madness) is a self-indulgent voluptuary, exactly the sort of man Jane would find repugnant—but he’s let it be known that he likes her writing and would welcome having her next book dedicated to him, which puts Jane in a bit of an authorial bind. When Jane journeys to the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House, she faces a complication much more serious than her literary dilemma: a famous soldier from the Battle of Waterloo drops dead at her feet in the Prince’s library. This title is the 13th in Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series, and Jane’s character and her relationships with other are well fleshed-out, adding some interest to the novel beyond the solution of the mystery itself.

Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary finds Pepys in a delicate situation when his diary disappears. He’s sent to do a bit of investigating for Charles the Second at a port, but is preoccupied with the question of who might have taken his diary. Although he’s written the diary in code, codes are breakable, and he’s been injudiciously, perhaps treasonably, honest about his mixed perceptions of the King and other court figures. Thus, as Pepys pursues one mystery, he can’t shake the dangerous implications of another. Pepys’ character is engaging, but not as well-rounded as one might like. What really shines here are Pepys’ relationships with both his much-aggrieved assistant Will Hewer and with his brother-in-law Balthazar (“Balty”), whose gastronomic capacities and preoccupations seem infinite.

When you’re looking for an entertaining read with a bit more substance underlying the characters and situations, either of these books will serve you well.

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