Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan
I always remember arguments about medical matters of profound significance when I was growing up. “It’s a rash!” would be countered by, “Don’t be silly, it’s just a few spots.” Today, this may not sound very important, but we old ‘uns grew up with interesting infections and diseases like measles and scarlet fever. What didn’t make us infertile might kill us to make sure we never had kids. This may seem a somewhat extravagant way to begin the review of a mere book, but Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012) is yet one more spot that I fear may be turning into a rash. Why? Because it’s riding the crest of a wave of books aping the styles of well-known authors. Indeed, a new line calling itself Clandestine Classics is due to launch later this month from Total-E-Bound Publishing. This publisher is preserving the style and language of Austen, Brontë, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, but introducing all the sex scenes that, previously, were only implied, e.g. homosexual activity between Holmes and Watson, bondage sessions between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, while Jane Eyre plays it safer and only has explosive, albeit unprotected, sex with Rochester hence the baby that appears at the beginning of this book. While Captain Nemo’s underwater fetish with that female octopus will also be exposed on YouTube in newly discovered sepia-tinted moving daguerrotypes.
Sadly, this book is rather tame. Instead of fighting off alien invaders, vampires, zombies or comparably vicious beasties, this addition to the Jane Eyre Chronicles is just a murder mystery as our heroine goes undercover to unmask the fiendish killer(s) of a “little girl”. Having just given birth to a son and heir, Jane is summoned to London by Adèle Varens and, despite being injured in failing to fight off a robber en route, arrives at the gates of Alderton House School for Girls just in time to see the titular schoolgirl’s body being taken away for autopsy — the Bow Street Runners tried and failed to get Miss Catherine Willows to view the crime scene, so had to fall back on Jane Eyre to infiltrate the school disguised as a teacher of German and art. The first more serious point to make is that Joanna Campbell Slan is not totally obsessive about accuracy in her recreation of the Victorian style. There’s some relief from the pedantry that pervades other attempts at pastiche. Nevertheless, this remains a rather tedious read. Frankly, this affectation of period prose adds little to the enjoyment of the book and pretending the book was written by someone else is not going to save the author. We must judge this on its merits as a murder mystery to be solved by an amateur detective, and not on whether it’s a successful pastiche with lots of social manners and lively conversations to pass the time.
So I come to the sad conclusion that Death of a Schoolgirl is a slight puzzle bloated to interminable length by desperate attempts to locate the work in the early part of the nineteenth century. I wish I could find something good to say about it but, without any explosive sex scenes to enliven the proceedings, it remains plodding and dull.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.