There’s more to mystery than murder
When we think of mystery novels, our mind usually goes to murder. The great Agatha Christie was one of the authors who popularized the murder mystery, astutely piecing together that some of the most compelling whodunnits should have life-or-death consequences.
Before Christie, mystery authors sometimes used murder plots in their novels, but not always. Theft, blackmail, false identities, and other types of mysteries were just as likely to be featured by popular writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins.
When I began thinking through the plot in my second Austen University Mystery novel, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to follow up with another murder mystery, for a number of reasons.
Each novel in the series can be read as a standalone novel, but for those who’ve been following the series, I didn’t want to seem like a one-trick pony.
I also didn’t want to alienate any of my Austen-loving fans by killing off too many beloved characters.
Finally, since this novel combines plot points from Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, arguably two of Austen’s funniest novels, I wanted to keep the tone more light and playful.
So how to come up with a compelling mystery where no one dies? Luckily for me, real life provided some pivotal inspiration that helped me shape the direction of the novel. At the time I was drafting the book, the Marine United scandal broke. (I’ll include a link here for any
interested, but for those who wish to avoid spoilers, I’ll keep my description vague.) Suffice it to say, the news story made me think about privacy and consent and to imagine who might be the
kind of people to abuse that power.
Austen University takes place on a college campus, so I also began thinking through hidden organizations that might lurk underneath the surface of academia. Fraternities and sororities have notoriously kept many aspects about their organizations hidden, although some of their secrets have been brought to light with recent interest in Greek life due to TikTok and the Bama Rush documentary.
In addition, secret societies like the real-life Skull and Bones have been the
focus of dark academia novels like The Secret History, The Likeness, and The Maidens.
With all of these literary ingredients floating around in my imagination, coming up with a crime as compelling as murder without any actual body count became a fun challenge. I hope you’ll enjoy piecing together the murder-free mystery along with Lizzy Bennet in The Portraits of
Pemberley–and deciding for yourself not only who attacked George Wickham, but also if he deserved it.
Elizabeth Gilliland earned her PhD in 19th-Century British Literature and Adaptations. She is a teacher and the author of the Austen University Mysteries (What Happened on Box Hill and The Portraits of Pemberley) and Come One, Come All (writing as E. Gilliland). She is also the co-founder of Bayou Wolf Press. You can find her on Twitter (@egilliland7) or TikTok (@egilliland_writer)