Jane Austen’s Lost Letters
A Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery
By Jane K. Cleland
St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books
Pub date: 14-Dec-2021
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Jane K. Cleland returns with Jane Austen’s Lost Letters, the fourteenth installment in the beloved Josie Prescott Antiques series, set on the rugged New Hampshire coast.
Antiques appraiser Josie Prescott is in the midst of filming a segment for her new television show, Josie’s Antiques, when the assistant director interrupts to let her know she has a visitor. Josie reluctantly pauses production and goes outside, where she finds an elegant older woman waiting to see her.
Veronica Sutton introduces herself as an old friend of Josie’s father, who had died twenty years earlier. Veronica seems fidgety, and after only a few minutes, hands Josie a brown paper-wrapped package, about the size of a shoebox, and leaves.
Mystified, Josie opens the package, and gasps when she sees what’s inside: a notecard bearing her name ‘in her father’s handwriting” and a green leather box. Inside the box are two letters in transparent plastic sleeves. The first bears the salutation, “My dear Cassandra,” the latter, ‘Dearest Fanny.” Both are signed “Jane Austen.” Could her father have really accidentally found two previously unknown letters by one of the world’s most beloved authors, Jane Austen? Reeling, Josie tries to track down Veronica, but the woman has vanished without a trace.
Josie sets off on the quest of a lifetime to learn what Veronica knows about her father and to discover whether the Jane Austen letters are real. As she draws close to the truth, she finds herself in danger, and learns that some people will do anything to keep a secret, even kill.
Author and teacher, Jane Cleland is named after Jane Austen. This circumstance led her to hold Austen near and dear to her heart — something she tells her students in the classroom or in webinars of which I’ve taken several. That said, this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read; I’m constantly referencing her book for writers on Mastering Suspense.
Determining which plot is the primary one is up to the reader. Cleland presents her protagonist Josie Prescott with a personal mystery connected to her business as an antiques appraiser/dealer with the character’s strong binds to her deceased father. The other plots are forgery, two murders, and the attempted murder of Josie. Based on the inciting incident of a stranger named Veronica Sutton showing up at Josie’s business, giving her a gift from her deceased father, and then disappearing — it seems like that is the story Cleland would rather emphasize. Perhaps if you’ve been reading the Josie Prescott books all along, you would want that personal plot to lead the way as well. As a new reader, I was more interested in the forgeries and murders.
This story about Veronica Sutton brings up real life moral dilemmas about privacy. Everything can be found online. For Josie, she utilizes behind-the-scenes assistance from Wes, her reporter friend who gathers information in ways the police can’t (no warrants needed). Readers are not bogged down with whatever those steps are only that Wes delivers the goods.
A unique characteristic about Josie and about Cleland’s writing of cozy mysteries is that Josie is a proud gun owner. The topic is so controversial. Readers may not understand what life is like in New Hampshire, but it’s nothing like California or New York. It would be odd if a character didn’t grow up with firearms or hunting in their family even if they didn’t take it up themselves. Josie is skilled with her weapon as her father taught her. On American television, crime fiction fans are used to agile, thin, capoeira expert, and crackshot characters that don’t feel real. Josie feels like a real person who is a good shot and even gets wildly lucky at a critical juncture.
The one part of Josie that didn’t feel real to me was her vernacular. Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly worldly. Josie says things like, “Oh, golly.” And her friend calls her pajamas “a nightie.” Those sound like vintage 1950’s terms. Josie even comes out with an old time saying, “we’ll be in the catbird seat,” which I’ve discussed in my case files. That saying comes from baseball announcer Red Barber who worked for various teams from 1934-1966. I’ve never heard anyone say it until I was researching catbirds.
There’s a lot of build up to the forgery process given that on Josie’s television show (Antiques Roadshow style), she has experts come on to defend whether an item is authentic such as a Beatrix Potter first printing. In this plot, three characters create tension. Gloria, a former supermodel turned Ph.D. document expert; Ivan, Gloria’s assistant looking to make his name for himself in a similar authentication technique that launched her to success; and Oliver Crenshaw, an antiques shop owner with a shady past and uncontrollable mother.
Does all that build up and foreshadowing about forgeries pay off? Yes and no. The documents in question are given definitive conclusions, but it comes pouring out around the 87% mark (reading the digital ARC).
What about the murders and attempted murder? The suspect pool is small and readers get the chance to understand each motive clearly. Josie doesn’t look outside the suspect pool and ends up with a completely different culprit with a motive not nearly as strong as the other candidates.
Since Josie is close personal friends with the police chief, Ellis Hunter, when he questions her officially, she answers with a lot of speculation. However, she admits it. Each time they go through an interrogation, she says that she’s only guessing and making things up to connect dots. What’s weird though is that some of these interviews take place with Josie in her hot tub. She’s always putting on airs in every scene, but she doesn’t grab a robe and get out of the hot tub to answer formal police questions while being video recorded.
Every author gets to do what they want in their own playground (their manuscripts). I’ve only pointed out my own criticisms as a New Jersey reader and writer myself to show what things I found odd for a contemporary cozy. Maybe all the quaint sayings are part of New Hampshire life. I would love to know! I always dreamed of living in New England and Josie and Ty’s incredible beach house sounds like heaven. If that’s the kind of literary escape you’re looking for and you miss Cabot Cove, this series might be perfect for you.
Rating: 5 stars