Charlie Lovett First Impressions Alma Books 2014
Murder is not nice, ever. And yet cozy mysteries — a popular sub-genre of crime fiction, often termed cosy crime in the UK — absolutely thrive on murder — their life-blood, as it were. Cozies are where violent death can be regarded with a polite shudder from the comfort of an armchair, perhaps curled up by a cheerful fire. Details are rarely visceral; the sleuth is usually a talented amateur; and the malefaction has a purely parochial significance. First Impressions certainly partakes of these aspects, but it also shares elements of the academic mystery: here the amateur detective is often a scholar, or the crime takes place in collegiate surroundings or some such bookish environment. In Lovett’s novel the deed is done close by the well-stocked library of a bibliophile.
But First Impressions includes yet another genre, the historical novel, because alternate chapters are set at the turn of the 19th century, focusing on the just-out-of-her-teens Jane Austen. But this is not a now fashionable mashup of Regency heroics and zombie apocalypse either: no, this is the follow-up to Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale, his first whodunit with a literary theme.
Imagine this: young Miss Jane, resident in Steventon in Hampshire, embarks on a friendship with an aged visitor to the locality, Richard Mansfield; a retired clergyman, he shares her enthusiasm for contemporary novels and encourages her in her ambition to be a published writer. Nearly two hundred years later Sophie Collingwood, contemplating a master’s at Oxford while she assists in a London bookshop, is approached by two buyers; they want her to locate Richard Mansfield’s A Little Book of Allegorical Stories, an obscure work published in Leeds in 1796. As we follow these strands separated by two centuries we begin to notice, in addition to the Mansfield connection, certain parallels: two young women obsessed by stories, the close friendships with a much older kindred spirit (Jane’s Reverend Mansfield, Sophie’s bibliophile uncle, Bertram) and a predisposition for the gentility of rural life. But for both Jane and Sophie there is also tragedy mixed with personal guilt.
As we progress through Lovett’s First Impressions (the title is, of course, that of an early draft of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) we shift between the points of view of the fictional Jane and that of Sophie, a blessedly proactive protagonist. As first impressions can always mislead us Lovett is clearly signalling that we can’t take things for granted. Is the assignation in the garden what the young Jane thinks it is? Is Uncle Bertram’s death from a fall an accident or truly murder? Are the two young men whom Sophie meets, seemingly by chance, really what they appear to be? Is Busbury Park, where all strands are finally tied up, more like Northanger Abbey, Pemberley or Mansfield Park?
This cozy deliberately sets out to be a distorted reflection in a glass. Lovett carefully weaves together literary clues, timelines, cross-references, intrigues and red herrings to make this a pleasant enough read — aided, despite her klepto tendencies, by the likeable Sophie — though I found I started to lose interest roughly two-thirds of the way through once I’d worked out where things were heading. I was also more than mildly irritated (as I was in his previous novel) by Americanisms such as “gotten” and “drapes” in the mouths of British speakers.
Above all I was not in the least convinced by his portrayal of Jane. What we know of her is that she was immensely sociable, but Lovett portrays her as one who was only able to confide a dark secret, which she’d kept from her schooldays in Reading, to a retired clergyman, a man moreover whom her family were never allowed to meet, and whose name was her last utterance before she died (her “Rosebud” moment, perhaps). My credulity was not only strained but broken irreparably at this point. Not nice, any more than murder is.