A list of all the books that ever touched on the forever-fascinating Bronte family of Haworth Parsonage would choke a Bronte saurus. Two more join the crowd this summer, one moody and meandering, the other amusing and brisk. Both are perfect vacation books, if you've already used up "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre," and musts for Bronte philes, if only out of curiosity.
"In the Shadow of the Bronte s" is, if reality must be served, a book only a woman will love. Torn between the dark tragedies of the Bronte s and the introduced adventures of a fictional heroine, it ultimately bags metaphysics and settles for uncomplicated romance.
Lizzie Godolphin is a workhouse child of mysterious parentage who is hired as a scullery maid by wealthy shipbuilder Edward Grayston. What the master doesn't know, and Lizzie only gradually learns, is that somewhere along the way she has (unaccountably) been deputized by the spirit of Maria Bronte , the mother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, to watch over them and their black-sheep brother, Branwell.
Neither this premise nor the fact that the scullery maid ends up with the master will strain the practiced credulity of romance addicts. More bothersome is the reader's growing suspicion that the heroine is a tin Lizzie, not up to the mettle of the Bronte s. Fast-cut, alternating scenes advance everybody's stories by fits and starts, but against the real-life characters and agonies of the Bronte s, Lizzie begins to look mechanical.
She also becomes an underachiever, as her supernatural mission turns out to be rather aimless and unimportant. But then, it would be hard for anyone to live up to this kind of expectation: "Tom . . . glanced at Lizzie uneasily. Why was he reminded of Christmas Eve, the Star and the Stable; the Three Wise Men coming from the East?"
The Bronte story is mystically evocative enough on its own, without such superimposed dithering. Lizzie absorbs time and attention that many readers might rather expend on the famous family. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Lizzie could have been left out of the novel entirely with no great loss. Still, Brindley, who wrote a sociable first book about her adventures as a matron in an old people's home, shows versatility. On its own level, "In the Shadow of the Bronte s" works, and few romance readers ask for more.
The Bronte s are only background in "The Case of the Missing Bronte ," and Bronte buffs who have just done Brindley will miss seeing their idols as characters involved in the action. On the other hand, they will be delighted to hear the news that Emily had the time between 1846 and 1848 to write a successor to "Wuthering Heights." Such a manuscript, we are told, has turned up in a retired schoolteacher's family legacy of old papers. When she is almost beaten to death and the manuscript stolen, Scotland Yard's Peregrine Trethowan gets the case.
Perry's an old friend to mystery-lovers, having already appeared in several funny, shrewd novels by three-time Edgar nominee Robert Barnard. If the wit seems less pervasive here than in his previous books, it's only because Barnard has produced a number of acts that are hard to follow.
Barnard's gift for satire is so biting that, except for protagonists, he has trouble turning out really likable characters, and the ones here are exemplarily repulsive. This time around he includes several nasty academic types, a head librarian who collects literary memorabilia from garter belts to fountain pens (is it an in-joke that one of these belongs to a modern Bronte biographer?), a couple of Viking thugs who square off against a couple of Anglo-American thugs, and the repellent Rev. Amos Macklehose, "a shepherd of sheep who was mainly interested in their fleeces."
"The Case of the Missing Bronte " has the merest feel of having been written too quickly, of prose unscrutinized, and odds and ends unaccounted for. But it closes out with a slam-bang finish and a tantalizing snippet of Emily's 100-year-old sleeper.
Both of these fictions are genre books, and neither is anything new under the sun. Really, that's where they belong, under a hot late-summer sun, taken chapter by chapter, between dips and naps and nips. But beware of the Bronte bug. It's infectious.