Agatha Christie meets Jane Austen in this atmospheric Regency tale brimming with mystery, intrigue, and romance.
When Miss Rebecca Lane returns to her home village after a few years away, her brother begs for a favor: go to nearby Swanford Abbey and deliver his manuscript to an author staying there who could help him get published. Feeling responsible for her brother's desperate state, she reluctantly agrees.
The medieval monastery turned grand hotel is rumored to be haunted. Once there, Rebecca begins noticing strange things, including a figure in a hooded black gown gliding silently through the abbey's cloisters. For all its renovations and veneer of luxury, the ancient foundations seem to echo with whispers of the past--including her own. For there she encounters Sir Frederick—magistrate, widower, and former neighbor—who long ago broke her heart.
When the famous author is found murdered in the abbey, Sir Frederick begins questioning staff and guests and quickly discovers that several people held grudges against the man, including Miss Lane and her brother. Haunted by a painful betrayal in his past, Sir Frederick searches for answers but is torn between his growing feelings for Rebecca and his pursuit of the truth. For Miss Lane is clearly hiding something…
The last few years have seen the reemergence of classic murder-mystery storytelling in our house, with films such as Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (which was such a hit, three more Knives Out movies are in the works). I've also enjoyed "Being Jane Austen" mysteries by author Stephanie Barron. For this viewer/reader, there is just something about the extended narrative of the introduction of many characters, any of whom could ultimately be guilty of a crime, and/or withholding secrets. Having little “clues” placed along the way as the mystery unfolds is always fun, especially if you return to the story a second time. Unexpected plot twists are a must (so– expected?), and having an element of romance is always a nice touch. In the case of Shadows of Swanford Abbey, author Julie Klassen has hit all the right points. Almost all the characters in this semi-gothic tale seem to be hiding something, the element of intrigue is palpable, and the plot frequently unpredictable. As is consistently the case with Klassen novels, the prose is well-written and the romance savory, yet tasteful.
I found the characters to be especially well-drawn, and villain or not, they were very enjoyable. As I usually do, characters achieve “Hollywood casting” in my head as I read. I have a terrible time remembering names, but I never forget faces, so assigning “actors” to the individuals in the stories that I read helps me to keep everyone organized. I imagined a younger Felicity Jones as Rebecca Lane, and Stuart Martin as Sir Frederick. His flirtatious, youthful brother is personified by Callum Woodhouse. The troubled brother of Rebecca reminds me of Adam Nagaitis, who also played a troubled brother in Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters. The reclusive author Ambrose Oliver would be deftly handled by Tom Hardy, if he put on a few pounds.
In addition to Klassen’s usual captivating writing, I was also impressed at her knowledge of several elements that are foreign to most. Based on the real-life Lacock Abbey, Swanford Abbey’s description in the novel was full of detail, showing the author’s thorough knowledge of the historic site. (For more detail, check out her YouTube video HERE – it’s really interesting!) Readers will also be treated to in-depth descriptions of activities of the 19th century period in which the characters lived, such as dressing habits, lawn bowling strategy, unique foods and other cultural references. Klassen has not only woven an intriguing, romantic tale, she has adeptly taken her readers back in time through details rife with historical accuracy.
As 2022 dawns, if you are looking for an excellent read to enjoy on dark wintery nights by the fire, I heartily recommend Shadows of Swanford Abbey. While it does have its moments of foreboding, it is thoroughly family-friendly, appropriate for all ages. The story of Rebecca's unrequited love is delectable, and readers can expect some interesting twists that will leave them satisfied at the story’s conclusion. Shadows is an excellent addition to the library of works that Julie Klassen is building, and can be enjoyed by Agatha Christie and Jane Austen fans alike.