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Jane and the Stillroom Maid    by Stephanie Barron order for
Jane and the Stillroom Maid
by Stephanie Barron
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

Step back in time to the polite world of Jane Austen in this fifth mystery from Stephanie Barron, starring the famous author as its amateur sleuth. Jane is touring Derbyshire (the setting of her well-loved novel Pride and Prejudice) under the aegis of her cousin Edward Cooper. George Hemming, a friend of Cooper's, is along for the trip. Jane is having a wonderful time surrounded by the natural beauty of the Peaks. This is despite Edward's penchant for breaking into song whenever the mood strikes him and the fact that both gentlemen tend to view the countryside solely through the eyes of trout fishing enthusiasts. When Edward and George stop at a promising trout stream, Jane takes the opportunity to walk up into the hills by herself. A flock of crows hovering over something above her catches her attention. She moves closer to investigate and discovers the corpse of a young man.

As the mystery unfolds, we are drawn into the world of the Cavendishes (a well-known Whig family in the late 18th century) via Jane's fictional friend, Lord Harold Trowbridge. Lord Harold definitely comes in handy for Barron, as he provides a conduit to the aristocrasy of the day, which provides much of the material for this series. In this case, the Cavendishes are integral to the murder, as it turns out that the supposed young man is actually a female maid formerly employed by their intimates, the Danforth family. Romance, envy, sexual peccadillos abound - the most far-fetched of which are actually true events in the lives of the Cavendishes, surely one of the most dysfunctional public families in England's history.

This was my first encounter with this mystery series featuring Jane Austen. As I'm a long-time Austen fan, I looked forward to these lighthearted treatments of her life. The dialogue and character descriptions are well-done and have a general flavor of Austen; the story is intriguing. I doubt that Jane would have had as easy an entry into high society as these books relate, but murder is always more interesting when the rich and famous are involved. In a secondary plotline, Jane's longtime friendship with Trowbridge is complicated by his seeming infatuation with Harriet, the Duke of Devonshire's daughter. This preoccupies Jane along with the mystery.

Austen fans who don't mind a little license taken with their favorite author should enjoy these stories. Regency buffs in general may also enjoy the references made to well-known people of the day. And the mystery ain't half bad, either.

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