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Posted on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6:45 a.m.

Clever historical mystery, 'The Deception at Lyme,' based on Jane Austen's 'Persuasion'

By Robin Agnew

The Deception at Lyme
Carrie Bebris

Tor/Tom Doherty, $22.99

Carrie Bebris’ charming series following Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and her Mr. Darcy after their marriage also patterns itself on Austen’s novels. The latest installment is based on "Persuasion," and the delightful Anne Elliott from that novel makes an appearance here. What Bebris really utilizes, however, is the setting of Lyme and its naval background for her story.

In Austen’s time, of course, England was the top sea power in the world, at a time when ships and shipping were the only way of moving goods overseas. Being a naval officer was an important and respected job, and when one turns up with his eye on Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, in this novel, it’s no surprise either that Georgiana responds to the handsome officer’s friendly overtures or that her protective brother looks at him askance.

The Darcys are in Lyme to meet with a naval officer who is delivering the effects of Darcy’s cousin, who had been killed in a sea battle. Before that can happen, as they are strolling by the sea with their young daughter, Lily-Anne, they come across a woman who has apparently fallen off the sea wall, and worse, she’s pregnant.

I’m not sure what other scene a writer could include in a novel that has more inherent drama that childbirth, but in any case, it’s a very gripping way for Bebris to begin her novel, and it allows her to introduce the character threads she’ll use throughout the rest of the book.

Bebris’ books are mysteries, but they closely follow Jane Austen’s pattern, and as P.D. James has famously written, Austen’s books were themselves essentially mysteries, with a surprising secret at the heart of each of the books.

While Austen’s secrets didn’t involve deaths but usually young women gone wrong or led astray, she was incredibly skillful at structuring her narratives so that the secret was tightly wrapped within the story, and the way it was teased out as the book unfolded kept readers guessing. Bebris shares this talent of Austen’s, as well as channeling some of her tone.

In this book, the action soon centers on the pregnant and injured woman, who dies but leaves behind a live infant. As the secrets of her past and the child’s parentage are unveiled a bit at a time, the story of the woman and her ties to various living members of the community of Lyme are made clear.

The story also centers on Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, who has not one, but two, suitors. One is the aforementioned naval officer, Lt. St. Clair, and the other, a dashing baronet, Sir Laurence.

Bebris includes some lighter period details, such as the way women went for a swim in 1815, as well as details of naval battles and ships in general that add to both the excitement and texture of the book. She’s also created a very clever mystery, one that had me surprised at several points (and a reason I’m not spoiling the story by giving any more away of the plot). Bebris has managed to make her book a very graceful homage to Austen while at the same time crafting a satisfying historical mystery.

Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor.