Murder at Mansfield Park is a whodunit inspired by Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which was published in the middle of the Regency, in 1814. Shepherd takes the setting and characters from Austen’s novel and shakes them up to create a new story.
Fanny Price becomes the falsely modest heiress who lauds it over the other inhabitants of Mansfield Park, whilst Edmund Bertram, still somewhat lacking in backbone, becomes the son of Mrs Norris, who is as spiteful and managing as ever. In this reversal of fortunes, Mrs Norris’ favour is now all for Fanny, whom she so despises in the original, leaving the much younger Julia Bertram to receive the sharp edge of her acerbic tongue. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is recast as the heroine, with a compassionate character and a set of principles that she does not possess in Austen’s novel.
The other Bertrams are less changed. Sir Thomas Bertram is still upright and honest and wanting the best for everyone and Lady Bertram is as weak and wishy-washy as ever. Tom is still a typical young gentleman of fortune, and Maria is still desperate for attention, but it is Fanny that she vies with, rather than her sister. Henry Crawford has not been reformed like his sister and remains a scoundrel, though you are left in some doubt as to how wicked he really is. However, he now has an occupation as a professional redeveloper and his designs for Mansfield Park are an integral part of the story.
The introduction of the thief-catcher, Charles Maddox, is a fascinating new addition to the story. Austen herself would, I think, have liked this intriguing character who ruthlessly conducts his investigations in order to solve the crime and yet displays a softer side to his character that makes you warm to him, despite his rough exterior.
I confess that I am a purist and like Jane Austen’s novels so much in their original form that I tend to find sequels and spin-offs something of a disappointment. That said, Mansfield Park is my least favourite of her novels, and Edmund is certainly the weakest of her heroes and perhaps that made me more open to a new interpretation.
The inspiration is certainly Austen’s novel, but the story is very much Shepherd’s own. Although certain elements have been replicated, the whole story moves in a completely different direction. Having accepted the new characters assigned to the leading players, I really enjoyed Shepherd’s tale of murder and mystery. There was, however, a little too much detail about the murder for my liking; I am rather squeamish and prefer not to know!
I was impressed by Shepherd’s style. It was refreshing to read an Austen-inspired novel that successfully reproduced the kind of narrative that Austen herself might have written rather than adopting a more modern style. Shepherd has clearly researched the period well and this was reflected in the historical accuracy of her work. Murder at Mansfield Park is a very creditable representation of what a Jane Austen murder mystery may have looked like.