My Dear Charlotte has flown beneath a lot of Janeites’ radar, probably because it was published by a very small indie publisher and doesn’t have the marketing machine behind it that other books can command; but when you have an Austen scholar who commands the respect of Jan Fergus writing your introduction, and you are the author of a series of well-regarded cozy mysteries, you’re off to a pretty good start; and the reader finds herself all anticipation, an anticipation that is not misplaced in this charming work.
It is not Austen paraliterature as most of us understand it, and that is what perhaps brought Professor Fergus’ approval: while it has a distinct flavor of Jane Austen’s work, it does not build directly upon any of her novels and uses none of her characters directly, though there are echoes of both. It is an epistolary novel, and the authoress has incorporated tidbits of Austen’s letters throughout. In hands less skilled, such insertions would be out of place, but Ms. Holt weaves them in judiciously.
The story itself is a series of letters from Miss Elinor Cowper to her sister, the eponymous Charlotte, who is away from the family home in Lyme while visiting relatives. The first few letters set the stage as Elinor shares gossipy news about various neighbors, and then reveals that one particularly annoying neighbor, Mrs. Woodstock, has died, apparently in her sleep.
Mrs. Woodstock’s cousin, as suspicious as one Miss Catherine Morland, is not at all sure that Mrs. Woodstock’s death was as natural as assumed, and suggests that there are several people who might profit by her death.
Elinor finds their new neighbor, Sir Edward Hampton, a widower with two small boys, a trifle arrogant and not especially conversable; but as Sir Edward is also the justice of the peace, he begins to investigate the circumstances of Mrs. Woodstock’s death. As Elinor’s own social interactions have innocently introduced her to some clues, she shares these with Sir Edward, who sets her to find out more. Ms. Holt’s experience as the author of cozy mysteries is evident, as the mystery is laid out slowly and methodically, with plenty of twists and turns and red herrings. We were never quite sure “whodunit”* or even if a murder had actually been committed until the ending was revealed, though none of the clues are wasted.
Elinor is a delightful narrator, her voice reminiscent both of Elizabeth Bennet and of Jane Austen herself. She slips bits of information about clothing and domestic affairs between detailed descriptions of the main mystery. Like many epistolary novels, the reader must suspend disbelief when the letter-writer includes detailed conversations in her letters, and some of the homely domestic details, while charming, serve to slow the story down a bit. However, overall the convention is pulled off perfectly; and had the book been a simple first-person narrative, it might not have been possible to include all the tidbits from Jane Austen’s letters.
We think most Janeites will enjoy this charming mystery, flavored liberally with Jane Austen’s work.
*Interestingly, the word “whodunit” appears to be in the word processing software dictionary, but “Janeite” does not!