For me, Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd, turned out to be two books. The first part is a parallel universe version of Mansfield Park in which Fanny Price is a thoroughly horrible heiress, and the second is an Agatha Christiesque murder mystery in which her murderer is discovered.
It was fun to read a version of Mansfield Park that explores a variety of what-ifs...what if Fanny had not been poor, what if the Crawfords had not been rich, and what if Mrs. Norris had not been childless. Shepherd does a wonderful job of preserving the key scenes and plot points and much of the dialogue of the original Austen story, but these scenes and dialogue are turned on their head with the changed characters making them fun, fresh, and interesting.
As legions of Austen fans who have strugged to like MP over the last 200 years will be pleased to learn, Shepherd gives Mary Crawford the day in the sun she so justly deserves and makes her the heroine, a role she was really born to play. As a reader and a Janeite, I can buy the idea that Mary without money could have tapped into her better attributes than Austen's Mary needed to. In most of the Mansfield Park recreated scenes, Mary ends up playing the role Austen's Fanny plays in the original, but with a bit more spunk.
Much as I enjoyed the first part of the book--the Mansfield Park recreated part--I was mightily relieved when Fanny Price finally showed up dead and Mary could move on to solving the mystery of her murder. I think the book really shone here, and Shepherd has a great start on being a Regency Murder Mystery queen. I loved the thief-taker, Charles Maddox, and hope that Shepherd writes more of his adventures in future novels. He was believeable, well-rounded, and an interesting character whom I would love to get to know better.
As many other reviewers have commented upon, Shepherd's prose is lovely to read. It feels Regency authentic, but not stilted or self-conscious. One passage that I particularly liked is when Mary Crawford, recently reunited with her brother, Henry, after a rather lengthy absence, thinks about their relationship:
Having been alone in the world from such an early age, the two had always relied on each other; her good sense balancing his exuberance, his spirits supporting hers; his pleasantness and gaiety seeing difficulties nowhere, her prudence and discretion ensuring that they had always lived within their means. She perceived on a sudden how much she had missed him, and how different the last weeks would have been had he been there.
I've always been a Henry Crawford fan myself, and Shepherd's Henry is more like Austen's Henry than any of her other doppelgänger characters in Murder at Mansfield Park are like their Austen originals. He has the same charm, energy, and confidence, and having to earn a living suits him, in my opinion. This Henry would have won Austen's Fanny in a heartbeat. In addition to wanting to see more of detective Charles Maddox in future Lynn Shepherd novels, I wouldn't mind seeing more of Henry Crawford too!
Now onto the more difficult part of this review--I honestly wasn't crazy about the ending, which is a bit ironic because Shepherd recently did an interview on another blog about how challenging endings are. I found the ending less than satisfying and not really believeable (i.e., I'm not talking about who dun it but the bit after that). It almost seemed like Shepherd's characters wanted to go in a direction different from the outcome she had pre-determined for them. Just my take on it, and I don't want this to put anyone off the book...it was fun to read, very well-written, and the mystery part absolutely first rate.