Supposing Jane Austen had been a crime writer?

Self Incrimination

Leading crime author and television screenwriter, Isabelle Grey, explains why she thinks Emma was the first novel of psychological suspense.

Posted on March 14, 2016 in Self incrimination
Tags: Isabelle Grey, author piece, jane austen, self incrimination

My copy of Jane Austen’s Emma is the one I had for English A Level, complete with under-linings and notes scribbled in the margin. I thought then how cunning and ingenious the narrative was, yet, although I dreamt of becoming a novelist, I had no idea I would write crime fiction nor that I might come to see Emma as the first ever novel of psychological suspense.


It’s all about setting a trap for the reader. Once you have finished Emma, it is impossible to read it a second time in the same way. Neither Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca nor Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl can offer any tricks that Austen hadn’t already pulled.


Right on the first page Austen sets out a clear warning that Emma Woodhouse’s cleverness, combined with her sense of entitlement, is going to lead her into unperceived danger – a premise familiar to modern readers of domestic noir.


Of course in Emma’s world the dangers are not violent or criminal – although Frank Churchill’s charm and his fluent and conscience-less ability to lie come pretty close to sociopathic – but it’s clear that for the inhabitants of Highbury the stakes are high. And, as the tension and misery of the various social gatherings increase, there is a feeling that Emma is a young woman in jeopardy – although we fail to see the killer twist ahead.


This is because Austen has fooled us into us into thinking how clever we are to spot how wrong Emma is about what would make Harriet Smith happy, how wilfully blind she remains to Mr Elton’s interpretation of her encouragement; we congratulate ourselves on anticipating the painful lesson Emma inflicts on herself by her rudeness to the garrulous Miss Bates and await the consequences that must follow.


Thus Austen steers us into a complacency as blinkered as Emma’s about our own cleverness – before springing her trap. Once the reader learns (spoiler alert!) that Frank Churchill is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, everything changes. Like Emma, we look back and realise how blindly we missed what was hidden in plain sight.


Reading the novel a second time, it becomes deliciously clear just how astonishingly clever and original Austen’s writing is. I am no expert but I suspect this was the first time any novelist had crafted such a concealed narrative twist. The more crime novels I write, the more my admiration for Emma grows.


As it does also for ‘handsome, clever’ Emma Woodhouse. Indeed, I’d like to think that my DI Grace Fisher shares some of Emma’s spirit and enterprise, her ability to make and overcome mistakes. Equally, as happens in Shot Through The Heart, if someone – perhaps a disaffected soldier from the Napoleonic Wars – took his musket and shot five inhabitants of Highbury one Christmas Day, I wouldn’t be surprised if Emma and her investigative team of Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston turned detective and worked through the web of secrets and lies to uncover the truth.


If Jane Austen had lived on for another century or two until the genre flourished, I bet she would have adored crime fiction.


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