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Monday, December 20, 2010

Marriage or Murder at a Country Manor

A sprawling estate in the English countryside. A wealthy family, bound by the secrets they endeavor to keep from their friends and neighbors. A house party--with an engagement celebration its primary focus--featuring the usual assortment of pompous gentlemen of a certain age, mothers eager to make the best matches for their daughters, preening dandies too aware of their own highly-eligible status, and silly young girls harboring fairy-tale dreams of finding eternal love with their own handsome princes. A sudden, silent communication which sends the groom-to-be hieing off, breaking his engagement without explanation and leaving behind a tearful fiancée who refuses to accept that her perfect world has suddenly gone so very wrong. And, an intelligent and competent spinster, torn between duty to her niece and curiosity about her fellow houseguests, trying to make sense of it all.

All of that might well have been plucked straight out of a Jane Austen novel... were it not for the inclusion of a pesky little murder (the likes of which the very proper Ms. Austen certainly never wrote about in her own works).

Newcomer Anna Dean, however, doesn’t labor under such strict rules of authorly behavior in the 21st century, and in Bellfield Hall she tosses the murder of a mysterious young woman into the mix almost gleefully, resulting in a sort of Jane Austen-meets-Miss Marple story. (If you’re getting worried right now, don’t; it’s all good.)

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When a distraught Catherine Kent summons her favorite maiden aunt, Miss Dido Kent, to the country estate of Sir Edward Montague, Aunt Dido understands that her purpose is a dual one: to try and soothe her adored niece’s frazzled nerves and broken heart, and to figure out why young Richard Montague has abruptly broken the troth between them. Catherine has always relied on her aunt--from a very young age--and knows the older woman to be both wise and clever (not to mention being far better at such things than Catherine's stepmother, whose interests only lie in the monetary and societal aspects of her stepdaughter’s impending nuptials, as she cares not a whit for the girl’s current misery). Dido, for her part, loves a good puzzle... and quite relishes the feeling of being needed.

What we are soon to learn, though--through a mix of first-person narration (via the letters Dido writes to her equally-spinsterish sister) and traditional third-person recounting--is that she has no idea what's actually in store for her. The latest shock to hit Bellfield Hall, you see--and on the very day Dido arrives, no less--is the discovery of the body of an unknown woman, found murdered on the grounds.

Catherine, understandably, isn’t nearly as concerned with a dead woman she’s never met as she is with her absent fiancé. Dido isn’t entirely convinced the two things are unrelated, however, and makes it her (secret) mission to find out everything she can about the poor dead girl--who she was, why she was killed, and who did the killing--just in case there is some sort of connection, which might conceivably cause further harm to her niece, whether to her reputation or her future happiness. (That, of course, is something Dido has no intention of allowing.)

Dido is relentless, asking questions (at times bordering on impertinence) of virtually anyone and everyone--from the lord of the manor to the other esteemed guests to the lowliest of the house staff and groundskeepers, noting all the gossip and innuendo for future consideration, and even going so far as to eavesdrop just the teensiest bit (but only when the opportunity presents itself, naturally). What she soon discovers, though, is that the secrets in the Montague family run very deep... and that plenty of the other houseguests have shameful things which they would also vastly prefer to keep hidden from her prying eyes.

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Bellfield Hall is, as I indicated earlier, a lot of fun. It quite ably satisfies the desire for a charming Regency-era piece, with its polite society and intimate settings, while at the same time delivers some delicious intrigue and a compelling mystery.

The fact that everything works so well, of course, should be laid at the notably, unstylishly-clad feet of the fascinating (and unusual, for a Regency tale) heroine, Miss Dido Kent. Dido truly is a find; as an unmarried woman (of a certain age, herself) with no fortune to call her own, she is very much bound by the strictures of society and propriety. Despite those limitations, she nonetheless manages to live mostly on her own terms--using her cleverness, innate curiosity, and skills of observation more, and her somewhat lackluster talents at such things as stitching and the arts rather less--without being looked down upon or shunned by others. I really like the idea of such a woman... and I have an idea that the inimitable Ms. Austen might have approved, as well.


[Note: Anna Dean debuted with Bellfield Hall in 2008, and has since written two more books following Miss Dido Kent’s journey. As someone, erm, a wee bit past being a 20-yr-old ingenue myself, I must say that I'm looking forward to the continuing exploits of this something-special, mature woman... ;)] 
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