“Death of a Schoolgirl,” by Joanna Campbell Slan. Berkley Prime Crime. 352 pages. $15.00.
Like many novels of its time, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was presented in the guise of autobiography, though nonetheless with attribution to one Currer Bell, Charlotte’s pen name. Joanna Campbell Slan’s bright idea is to extend the Jane Eyre autobiography, picking up Jane’s life at the point Brontë left off, soon after Jane’s marriage to Edward Rochester and the birth of their son. Death of a Schoolgirl, then, is positioned as the first in a series of mystery novels, “The Jane Eyre Chronicles,” a promising competitor in the popular field of historical mysteries.
Though Death of a Schoolgirl moves a bit slowly at the beginning, when the author is backgrounding her characters and situation, it soon gains direction and momentum.
Choosing 1820 as the year of Jane’s first adventure, Ms. Slan launches an intriguing premise: Adèle Varens, a ten year old French girl who is Rochester’s ward, writes from her expensive boarding school that she is very unhappy and feels threatened. Jane and Rochester, who is striving to recovery from a severe vision handicap, decide that Jane should leave for London prepared to investigate the child’s situation. Along the way, she is attacked and robbed of precious gems, and when she arrives at the school she is at first mistaken for the expected new German teacher.
The students and staff are extremely agitated because one of the girls is most likely the victim of murder. Jane decides to stay on – if she can – in part to protect Adèle, but more and more to investigate the death of Selina, Adèle’s classmate. She is now Jane Eyre, amateur sleuth.
Unexpectedly, Jane encounters an old friend, Nan Miller, who is teaching at the school. Though Nan learns that Jane is now Mrs. Rochester, she helps Jane keep this a secret. The school would not hire a married woman to be on its teaching staff, and Edward Rochester’s horrible reputation has prejudiced the school’s director against his ward. When director Thurston discovers that Jane is not the expected German teacher, Nan helps smooth things over, vouching for Jane’s character and credentials in a way that leads Thurston to give Jane a temporary position.
From here on, the plot introduces frightening events and revelations, as well as a large cast of intriguing characters. Several of the girls have wounds on their backs from severe canings. Laudanum is being overused to control behavior and perhaps worse. Selina had treated the other students so horribly that they could be considered suspects. Thurston allowed her to get away with vile behavior, and the teachers were not permitted to reprimand her. This factor becomes a mystery within the mystery. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 23, 2012 Naples Florida Weekly, and also the August 30 Spacecoast edition and the Septermber 6 Palm Beach Gardens edition , click here: Florida Weekly – Joanna Campbell Slan