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Mysterious old characters come back to life

By Ruth Johnstone Wales / February 25, 1999



JANE AND THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE By Stephanie Barron Bantam 290 pp., $22.95 SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ICE PALACE MURDERS By Larry Millett Viking 322 pp., $23.95

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If you flaunt a bumper sticker that says, "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen," rejoice. Stephanie Barron has unearthed another of the well-loved author's "missing" journals. Jane and the Genius of the Place is the fourth in Barron's clever constructions featuring the redoubtable Jane as a murder-mystery sleuth.

It's late summer, 1805, and Miss Austen is comfortably ensconced at her brother Edward's splendid estate in Kent. The Canterbury Races top the calendar of diverting entertainments, which also includes elegant balls and lavish dinners at great houses.

At the track, a Frenchwoman in scarlet, who has shocked the race-meeting crowd with her brazen behavior and bold horsemanship, is found dead, and devoid of her flaming red costume, in a carriage near that of the Austen family. Since Jane's brother is the local justice of the peace, he begins an investigation of the crime, letting his sister see and hear all she needs to know and eventually pinpoint the murderer.

Along the way, Barron, whose scholarship equals her ingenuity, weaves in details about Napoleon's aborted invasion of Britain, international finance, high fashion, and changing tastes in English landscape design (the "genius of the place" in the title). Brief footnotes by the journal's "editor" identify the facts, referencing cultural and historical records.

Barron draws on Jane's letters and novels to put the action in the context of the author's documented life, using many characters who are real, although their actions may be imaginary. But it's the echo of Austen that offers the greatest delight. The writing captures Jane's cadence:

"I dearly love a ball.... There is that about the company - a liberality of means, a refinement of experience, an elegance of conduct and expression - that must lift the meanest participant to a more elevated plane. It is all too likely that such delights will prove depressingly rare in my future life;... It is a melancholy picture - one that might thrust me entirely into despair, were I not possessed of those inner resources without which a woman is nothing. However retired my future days, I will have wit to sustain me - the secret sarcasms of my pen, that must subject even the greatest to my power, unbeknownst to themselves. I shall have long walks in sun and shadow with my dearest sister, Cassandra. I shall have desultory hours of practice on a hired and indifferent piano. And on occasion, courtesy of Neddie and Lizzy, I shall have the illicit pleasure of a Canterbury ball."

Nicely paced and neatly plotted, "Jane and the Genius of the Place" is a pleasure to read.

Fans of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories may or may not be enchanted by Larry Millett's factual fictions in which the famous sleuth practices his art in an American location. Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, like its predecessor, takes place in St. Paul, Minn., at the time of the 1896 Winter Carnival.

Using the pretense of a recently discovered manuscript by the indomitable Dr. Watson, Millett mixes real and invented people in a reasonable facsimile of an Arthur Conan Doyle tale. The case begins with the gruesome murder of a young man from a prominent St. Paul family on the eve of his marriage to the city's most attractive debutante. His severed head is found buried under a frozen block in the Ice Palace where the wedding was to take place.

As in the popular originals, Holmes relies on brilliant deduction and daring physical feats to solve the mystery and uncover a depraved and diabolical killer.

Using newspaper accounts to learn about many details, he observes with Sherlockian wit: "As I have always said, there are three kinds of stories: those that are true, those that are false, and those that appear in the newspapers."

The great man is helped by Shadwell Rafferty, an engaging Irish-American, whose detective talents rival Holmes's. Although not one of the "real" characters, Rafferty seems almost larger than life. Historical figures like railroad baron James J. Hill and publisher Joseph G. Pyle play key but cameo roles in the drama.

In extensive (perhaps too extensive) end notes, Millett provides sometimes fictional verification of details in the story. And then in an author's afterword finally explains what is, in fact, fact.

This conceit can be annoying, but if you skip the 14 pages of fine-print notes, you'll still enjoy this addendum to the master's vintage mystery cases.

*Ruth Johnstone Wales is the Monitor's Page 1 editor.