In her sixth engrossing outing, Jane Austen employs her delicious wit and family ties to the Royal Navy in a case of murder on the high seas. Somewhere in the picturesque British port of Southampton, among a crew of colorful, eccentric, and fiercely individual souls, a killer has come ashore. And only Jane can fathom the depths of his ruthless mind....
Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House
"I will assert that sailors are endowed with greater worth than any set of men in England."
So muses Jane Austen as she stands in the buffeting wind of Southampton's quay beside her brother Frank on a raw February morning. Frank, a post captain in the Royal Navy, is without a ship to command, and his best prospect is the Stella Maris, a fast frigate captained by his old friend Tom Seagrave.
"Lucky" Tom -- so dubbed for his habit of besting enemy ships -- is presently in disgrace, charged with violating the Articles of War. Tom's first lieutenant, Eustace Chessyre, has accused Seagrave of murder in the death of a French captain after the surrender of his ship.
Though Lucky Tom denies the charge, his dagger was found in the dead man's chest. Now Seagrave faces court-martial and execution for a crime he swears he did not commit.
Frank, deeply grieved, is certain his friend will hang. But Jane reasons that either Seagrave or Chessyre is lying -- and that she and Frank have a duty to discover the truth.
The search for the captain's honor carries them into the troubled heart of Seagrave's family, through some of the seaport's worst sinkholes, and at long last to Wool House, the barred brick structure that serves as gaol for French prisoners of war.
Risking contagion or worse, Jane agrees to nurse the murdered French captain's imprisoned crew -- and elicits a debonair surgeon's account of the Stella Maris's battle that appears to clear Tom Seagrave of all guilt.
When Eustace Chessyre is found murdered, the entire affair takes on the appearance of an insidious plot against Seagrave, who is charged with the crime. Could any of his naval colleagues wish him dead? In an era of turbulent intrigue and contested amour, could it be a case of cherchez la femme ... or a veiled political foe at work? And what of the sealed orders under which Seagrave embarked that fateful night in the Stella Maris? Death knocks again at Jane's own door before the final knots in the killer's net are completely untangled.
Always surprising, Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House is an intelligent and intriguing mystery that introduces Jane and her readers to "the naval set" -- and charts a true course through the amateur sleuth's most troubled waters yet.
Jane Austen aficionados once again have cause to rejoice, as Barron (Jane and the Stillroom Maid, etc.) maintains her usual high standards in this latest literary historical, set in the environs of Southampton and Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy. In the winter of 1807, Jane is one of the Austen household living in lodgings, when her brother Frank enlists her aid in clearing the name of his friend, Captain Tom Seagrave. Seagrave's lieutenant has accused him of killing an enemy officer after the Frenchman surrendered his ship in a naval action off the Portuguese coast. Such a charge under the Articles of War could result in the hanging of "Lucky" Tom. Frank cannot believe that his friend is guilty, and Jane resolves to find a witness, perhaps among the French prisoners of war incarcerated at the Wool House. Soon, Captain Seagrave's is not the only life in jeopardy. Barron has on the whole again caught Austen's tone accurately. Details about life in the British navy serve to illuminate, rather than distract from, the narrative. The novel's real achievement, though, is the portrayal of the minor characters the retired seaman known as the Bosun's Mate, Seagrave's suspicious and vulnerable wife and Jane's brother Frank, who's anxious for command but uncertain of the price that may be exacted. A somewhat convoluted plot, thanks to Jane's puzzle-solving abilities, comes to a neat resolution. (Nov. 27)Forecast: The superb jacket art emphasizes the naval theme, a possible crossover lure to C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian fans.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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October 28, 2002
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Excerpt from Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House by Stephanie Barron
Chapter 1 A Passage Down the Solent Monday, 23 February 1807 Southampton Had I suffered the misfortune to be born a man, I should have torn myself early from the affections of my family and all the comforts of home, and thrown my fate upon the mercy of the seas. That fresh salt slap, as bracing as a blow; the bucking surge of wave upon wave, a riderless herd never to be bribed or charmed into complaisance; the endless stretch curbed by no horizon, that must unfold an infinite array of wonders before the eyes — exotic climes, benighted peoples, lost cities set like rubies among the desert chasms — oh, to sail the seas as my brothers have done before me! Free of obligation or care beyond the safety of oneself and one’s men — free of the confines of home and earth-bound hopes and all the weight of convention like an anchor about one’s neck! Casting my eye across the extent of Southampton Water to the New Forest opposite — verdure indistinct behind a scrim of morning fog — I shuddered from suppressed excitement as much as from the chill rising off the sea. From my position on Southampton’s Water Gate Quay I might dip my hand for a time in the cold current of English history. Southampton Water, and the Solent that runs between the mainland and the Isle of Wight just south, have ever been the point of departure for great adventure — for risk, and high daring, and fortunes made or lost. Here the troops of King Henry embarked for the battle of Agincourt; here the Puritan colonists hauled anchor for the New World. It is impossible to stand within sight and sound of the heaving grey waters, and be deaf to their siren call; and not for Jane Austen to resist the force that has bewitched so many Hearts of Oak. A forest of masts bobbed and swayed under my gaze: men o’war newly-anchored from Portsmouth; merchant vessels and whalers from the far corners of the Atlantic; Indiamen, rich and fat with the spoils of Bombay; and a thousand smaller craft that skimmed the surface of the Solent like a legion of water beetles. Hoarse cries of boatmen and the creak of straining ropes resounded across the waves; a snatch of sea-chanty, an oath swiftly quelled. The smell of brine and pitch and boiling coffee wafted to my reddened nostrils. This was life, in all its unfettered boldness — and these were Englishmen at their most honest and true: a picture of glory enough to drive a thousand small boys from their warm beds, and send them barefoot to the likeliest ship, hopeful and unlettered, ill-fed and mendacious as to right age and family, for the sake of a creaking berth among the rats and the bilge-water below. Were I returned in spirit to the days of my girlhood, a child of seven sent to school in Southampton — I might be tempted to steal my brothers’ Academy uniforms, and stow away myself. “Are you quite certain you wish to accompany me to Portsmouth, Jane?” enquired my brother Frank anxiously at my elbow. I turned, the pleasant reverie broken. “I should never have quitted my bed at such an early hour, Fly, for anything less. You could not prevent me from boarding that hoy at anchor, if you were to set upon me with wild dogs.” It was necessary to suggest bravado — the hoy, with a single mast bobbing in the swell, was rather a small coasting vessel when viewed against the backdrop of so much heavy shipping: and I am no seawoman. “The weather shall certainly be brisk,” my brother persisted doubtfully. “The wind is freshening, and I fancy we shall have rain before the day is out.” “I do not regard a trifling shower, I assure you — and the air is no warmer in our lodgings. Mrs. Davies is of a saving nature, and does not intend that we shall ever