JANE AND THE STILLROOM MAID By Stephanie Barron Bantam 277 pp., $22.95
No longer is there any mystery about why Jane Austen wrote so few of her delectable novels: She was too busy tracking down murderers and recording her adventures in a series of journals. "Jane and the Stillroom Maid" is the fifth of these "lost" manuscripts "edited" by Stephanie Barron.
It's the summer of 1806, and Jane is on a brief August holiday in Derbyshire with her mother, sister, and a cousin when she discovers the body of a young serving girl dressed in her master's clothes on a rocky crag, a bullet through her head and her body brutally slashed.
Clever Jane - all sense but not without sensibility about this gruesome crime - finds clues in the record book of the murdered maid, who recorded the folk medicines that she concocted and administered to household members, villagers, and gentry in the neighborhood.
High-born manners and morals - it's a wise child who knows his own father - also play a part in the mystery, as Jane has the pleasure of dining with and observing the landed aristocracy.
Set in the lush landscape familiar to readers of "Pride and Prejudice" and using a grand mansion that may have been a model for the great house in that novel, this adventure is less imbedded in the known facts about Austen's whereabouts than were the earlier mysteries in which she played sleuth.
In the absence of letters or diary entries by Austen for this period, Barron makes use of other primary sources in creating an authentic mood - and motive - for murder. After all, accompanied by both mother and sister, to whom would Jane write letters?
No matter. If you're already a Jane Austen mystery fan, here's another first-rate addition to the series. If you're new to these plausible but improbable historical reconstructions, join the fun!
*Ruth Johnstone Wales in on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society