Children’s book of the week: Jane Austen Investigates by Julia Golding

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Our latest recommendation for young readers is a really fun detective story for nine year olds and older – more details here.

One of the areas that’s been heavily cut back on as newspapers and magazines trim their budgets in current times is reviews of books for young readers. As such, it’s getting trickier and trickier for authors of books for children and younger readers to get their work noticed. This weekly spot on the site is our attempt to do something about that. If you see a book you like here, please do spread the word. And who knows? We may see some of these stories on the big screen in the future.

It’s a concept so deliciously appealing it’s a wonder no-one’s done it before: Jane Austen, girl detective. But does it work? It does indeed – though it’s probably one for more mature and patient readers, especially fans of mysteries.

Much more in the Katherine Woodfine vein than, say, Murder Most Unladylike, Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery establishes not just Jane’s burgeoning detective creds, but also a flavour of her home life with her beloved sister Cassandra, and long-suffering, rather critical mother.

Author Julia Golding freely imagines the details of their lives – Jane rolling her eyes as Cassandra’s mooning swains, and trailed everywhere by an unimpressive-looking but loyal canine companion. Having done so, she packs Jane (and Grandison the dog) off to another family as a temporary companion to the peevish Lady Cromwell, where she also meets the boorish Lord Cromwell, their spoiled son, and the various (mostly much more sympathetic) characters who work on the estate.

Jane is a deliberately gutsy and unconventional character, so of course her friends aren’t the ones ‘respectable’ young ladies are supposed to hang out with. A poorly-treated stable hand, the daughter of the Indian cook, and the steward’s highly intelligent son, Fitzwilliam, quickly become her gang.

If that sounds like a lot to establish, it is; it’s a good 50 pages or so before the mystery, a high-value theft, becomes apparent – and probably another 50 before there’s much excitement. So readers who like to linger on characterisation and personal relationships will enjoy this more than those who are just in it for a rip-roaring plot – though, when it does pick up, it races rather smartly to the end, and it’s reasonably tricky to work out whodunnit.

One of the most charming quirks is the inclusion of Jane’s letters home, peppered between chapters, and written in various codes and asides so that she can try and let her sister know what’s happened without raising the alarm elsewhere.

Grown up readers who are drawn in by the premise will find plenty of other little charms and pleasures. Aside from the steward’s name, there are plenty of other references to Austen’s famous works dotted about. Jane’s relationship with Cassandra certainly has shades of Lizzie and Jane Bennett. It’s a nice over-their-heads touch of humour which makes this an enjoyable read to share with the kids.

And if it does go down well? Then there’s plenty of series potential in its future.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery
Author: Julia Golding
Reading age: 9+
Publisher: Lion
Release date: 23 April 2021
Purchase / more info

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