"A Gentleman of Fortune" by Anna Dean: Book Review

"A Gentleman of Fortune" by Anna Dean
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 335 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James

If Jane Austen had turned her hand to sleuthing instead of writing, then she might have become rather similar to Miss Dido Kent.

Dido, aged thirty-five in 1806 England, is definitely a woman of her own mind. Unwilling to dissemble or to act under what she considers "false pretence" in order to situate herself securely in a marriage, she finds herself at the precipitous edge of security that Austen knew all too well-- as did other gentrified women of her era-- and that she attempted to escape via a career as a successful novelist.

The peripatetic Dido moves from one household to another, living off the grace and favor of relations and friends.

To be sure, she is seldom idle, either serving as companion, caretaker, or even nurse to someone in need.

However, the exeedingly warm and exultantly flowering summertime of this second Dido Kent mystery by English novelist Anna Dean sets the protagonist at the then-country Richmond estate of her cousin, Flora Beaumont, whose husband is away on extended business.

What should be an idyllic season of riparian strolls, garden parties, and invitations to supper becomes much more when one of Flora's favorite young gentlemen friends (Dido fears her cousin fancies him a tad beyond the bounds of propriety), Henry Lansdale, is suspicioned of murdering his wealthy aunt with an overdose of a potent laudanum derivative.

Flora simply cannot believe that to be, so for her sake (and for the sake of her own pressing curiosity) Dido commences her observances-- of Lansdale's household servants, his neighbors, and his closest associates.

The author supplies many spokes-- and thus many mysteries-- to this hub of her plot, so Dido and the reader come to ponder the personal histories of five persons outside the Lansdale household: three who reside across the street, and two who live on an Elizabethan-era estate near the Beaumont house.

Dean draws all her characters with aplomb, and her plotting-- along with many of her clues--proves appreciatively clever.

The aforementioned women's issues of Regency England are delineated by many of the female characters' situations.

Additionally, Dido must square the independent yearnings of her intellect and puzzle-solving prowess with her affection for-- and the attentions of-- Mr. William Lomax, introduced in Dean's previous "Bellfield Hall."

It would seem, for all Dido's clued-in-ness, Mr. Lomax remains in many degrees clueless.

Beyond the Jane Austen flavor and feel of the novel, Dean offers both a smidge of Dickens (through such characters as nosy neighbor Mrs. Midgely and trollopy laundress Jenny White) and a soupcon of Conan Doyle (as many of Dido's observations are in fact Sherlockian deductions).

"A Gentleman of Fortune" emerges as even more enjoyable than the remarkable "Bellfield Hall." These are novels that Austen herself probably would have found most favorable.

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