Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Book Review: The Late Mrs. Willoughby by Claudia Gray

The suspenseful sequel to The Murder of Mr. Wickham, which sees Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney reunited, and with another mystery to solve: the dreadful poisoning of the scoundrel Willoughby's new wife.

Catherine and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey are not entirely pleased to be sending their eligible young daughter Juliet out into the world again: the last house party she attended, at the home of the Knightleys, involved a murder—which Juliet helped solve. Particularly concerning is that she intends to visit her new friend Marianne Brandon, who's returned home to Devonshire shrouded in fresh scandal—made more potent by the news that her former suitor, the rakish Mr. Willoughby, intends to take up residence at his local estate with his new bride.

Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley are thrilled that their eldest son, Jonathan—who, like his father, has not always been the most socially adept—has been invited to stay with his former schoolmate, John Willoughby. Jonathan himself is decidedly less taken with the notion of having to spend extended time under the roof of his old bully, but that all changes when he finds himself reunited with his fellow amateur sleuth, the radiant Miss Tilney. And when shortly thereafter, Willoughby's new wife—whom he married for her fortune—dies horribly at the party meant to welcome her to town.

With rumors flying and Marianne—known to be both unstable and previously jilted by the dead woman's newly made widower—under increased suspicion, Jonathan and Juliet must team up once more to uncover the murderer. But as they collect clues and close in on suspects, eerie incidents suggest that the killer may strike again, and that the pair are in far graver danger than they or their families could imagine.

A year ago the Austenesque community was given a delightful read in Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham. Within this cozy mystery many characters from the mind of Jane Austen were given new life, and original individuals were brought to the literary stage as well. The most notable of the fresh faces were drawn from Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. Juliet Tilney is the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Henry and Catherine. She is joined by Jonathan Darcy, son of the Darcys of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Both of these young people proved to be an effective team as the mystery of the death of George Wickham was worked out in The Murder of Mr. Wickham. In this sequel they have been reunited, and once again are witnesses to a suspicious death. The wife of Sense and Sensibility’s John Willoughby, Sophia Willoughby, suddenly dies of poisoning while in the presence of several witnesses and suspects. Jonathan and Juliet work diligently to determine the identity of those who might be at fault in the case. They are not only motivated by a sense of curiosity, but also by a desire to see justice done. Without their efforts, a blameless friend may be accused of the crime. 

Author Claudia Gray has again crafted a delightful mystery with beloved characters which are both fresh from her imagination and well-established from Austen. While the death of Sophia Willoughby is a dramatic one, the circumstances surrounding it are completely plausible. Mrs. Willoughby is presented as a distasteful woman, married to a man already known to be of questionable integrity. Any number of people could be enemies to the Willoughbys, and readers are kept guessing throughout the narrative. Claudia Gray offers quite a few red herrings, and while this reader was able to eliminate several suspects from the outset, I never truly saw who was to blame until the very end. The culprit(s) was/were completely unexpected, yet utterly believable as well. The finale held stunning and creative choices. The Late Mrs. Willoughby was familiar in tone, but never predictable. In this regard it was literary comfort food and a surprise dish, all in one. 

Although The Late Mrs. Willoughby is firmly a cozy mystery, I commend Claudia Gray for exploring ancillary issues as well. As was presented in the first novel, Jonathan Darcy is a neurodivergent personality. A modern diagnosis might reveal some type of sensory disorder, or perhaps autism-spectrum issues. He struggles to understand social cues, is highly intelligent and sometimes has trouble with particular sensory influences. These factors are all too real to many families in the 21st century, and it is interesting to see how Jonathan’s condition manifests within 19th century English society. I found his character to be utterly endearing, especially as I am a family member of persons with similar issues. Including this type of character within the novel is unique and appreciated.

Gray also explores other themes which are attached to the mystery. Marianne Brandon seems to be suffering from significant post-traumatic stress in the wake of the events seen in the previous novel. Edward Ferrars struggles with forgiveness and reconciliation within his extended family. Colonel Brandon’s ward, Beth Williams yearns to find her place in the world as an illegitimate daughter and unwed mother herself. While The Late Mrs. Willoughby is an enjoyable mystery, deeper issues are woven throughout and lend a measure of substance to it.

Because The Late Mrs. Willoughby is a sequel, there are quite a few references to the previous title, The Murder of Mr. Wickham. The second work could be read on its own, but the enjoyment would be diminished significantly if read in such a way. Wickham is also an enjoyable read, so it is certainly recommended that both are read in succession. Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney make a great sleuthing pair, and elements near the conclusion of this novel seem to indicate that their work together is not yet complete. At ages 21 and 17 (respectively), Jonathan and Juliet are quite young and could have many years ahead and scores of adventures together. This romantic also hopes that their friendship will continue to grow, and perhaps one day we will find them in the position that Austen often placed her main characters, standing before the altar to begin their Happily Ever After.


Claudia Gray is the pseudonym of Amy Vincent. She is the writer of multiple young adult novels, including the Evernight series, the Firebird trilogy, and the Constellation trilogy. In addition, she’s written several Star Wars novels, such as Lost Stars and Bloodline, and Jane Austen-inspired series, A Mr. Darcy & Miss Tilney Mysteries. She makes her home in New Orleans with her husband Paul and assorted small dogs. 




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