Was Jane Austen a Mystery Novelist?

In the craft-focused book Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels, romance author Gwen Hayes advises aspiring genre romance novelists: “You’re writing a romance, so your theme is already picked out for you: Love Conquers All.”

By these standards, of course, Jane Austen did not write romance as a genre in the modern sense. It’s very clear that love in Austen cannot transcend a certain level of class and income, even when there is some blurring of such lines. After all, even in what is perhaps Austen’s most conventionally romantic Cinderella story, Elizabeth Bennet stresses very clearly, in defense of her right to marry Mr. Darcy: “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal” (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 56). She does not say that her class and status does not matter at all, and even a maid has the right to marry a man as rich as a lord. Characters who say income means nothing in the face of passionate love are either lying (hello, Isabella Thorpe) or young and blind (Marianne Dashwood).

Another modern genre many authors have suggested Austen is very close to, however, is that of the detective novel. Instead of following our emotions and instincts regarding the obvious culprit, detective novels instead stress the theme of Trust No One, i.e., that everyone is a potential suspect. Logic, good sense, and cool rationality lead us to the wise conclusion, urging the reader to look beyond the obvious that the charming Wickham is in the right and the unreadable standoffish Darcy is in the wrong. The novelist P.D. James was a great fan of Austen–she read all of Austen’s novels on an annual basis, and even (at the end of her life) took a stab at writing a Austen fanfic/mystery mashup, Death Comes to Pemberley, later adapted to film. In 1998, James gave a talk on Emma as a detective novel.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Of course, if Agatha Christie was writing Emma, Jane and Frank would conspire to murder Mrs. Churchill so they could enjoy her fortune. Or Frank would marry Emma, with the intention of murdering her and marrying Jane afterward, a la Christie’s Death on the Nile or Endless Night. But still, in Emma Austen plays a clever game of dropping fair clues that an astute reader can pick up on, while cleverly misleading them by using Emma’s perspective, and all her novels teach readers to be astute and suspicious judges of character, versus heedlessly following their hearts.

Perhaps this is why, in my unscientific poll of Janeites, so many of us love mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie, James, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and others.

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