Arsenic with Austen is the first mystery in a projected series titled “Crime with the Classics.” The concept is wonderful–a cozy mystery series where the amateur sleuth solves murders thanks to her extensive knowledge of the classics of English literature.
The protagonist–a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor of literature on the verge of an impending midlife crisis–suddenly inherits a mansion on the Oregon coast, along with a whole lot of money and real estate. This introvert professor, named Emily Cavanaugh, must first navigate all the difficulties of being a newly rich and powerful person in a community small enough for everyone to know (and gossip about) everyone else. Add to that an old boyfriend who may or may not still nurtures a flame for her, and the considerable shadow of her deceased aunt, who left her much more than a house and money. And then the bodies begin to pile up.
The mystery is nothing spectacular. It’s a cozy, after all, and it’s hard to be terribly original in such a well-worn genre. What sets this book apart from the rest is the writing. Katherine Hyde is bold enough to think that her readers might actually understand literary allusions without her using a sledgehammer. The result is a Dorothy L. Sayers-style mystery. Though Emily Cavanaugh is very straightforward and not one to put on any sort of silly display, she is certainly as educated and as appreciative of a good literary allusion as Lord Peter Wimsey.
The parallels with Austen’s novels are subtle and effective, and the quotes from Austen that begin every chapter are like little literary candies, but with more nutritional content. I was also pleased that my knowledge of Austen’s works did not give away the killer at the end (though I did guess who it was, at least partially).
Something this genre generally lacks is a sense of real menace. Sherlock Holmes can’t even die. Poirot is undamageable. Lord Peter Wimsey has Bunter to save him. But Emily Cavanaugh is remarkably vulnerable, and the danger she finds herself in at the end is chillingly real. The stakes are very human, very believable, very scary. I was pleasantly surprised at how worried I got at the end of a cozy mystery. Kudos to the author for surprising me.
I’m thrilled to have received an early review copy of the book, and I can’t wait for the rest of the series.