An obvious instance, though a sort of inversion, may be found in the case of Jane Austen. That exceedingly fine comedy, "Northanger Abbey," turns entirely on the idea of the heroine suspecting that there is a murderous mystery, and then finding out after all that there is only a humdrum or mildly humorous household. What fun it would be to write it all over again backwards; and let her first admit that it was only a humdrum household, and then find out after all that it was really a murderous mystery. For my part, I confess that I closed the book with very dark and lingering doubts about General Tilney, that very discouraging gentleman; and, without taking any actual steps about exhuming his wife's body, I can never get rid of the notion that he did murder her after all. But the mind refuses to linger over the admitted melodrama of "Northanger Abbbey"; or to follow tamely the ironical suggestion about the memoirs of the wretched Matilda. It would be even better fun to transfer the atmosphere of crime to the other more quietly realistic stories of Jane Austen. "Persuasion" would be a good name for a murder story; especially of the sort that dwells upon terrorism and torture; and a subtle and delicate ethical and psychological question might be raised about whether a really callous crime would be more probably the result of Sensibility or merely of Sense. The most probable problem raised in the case of "Pride and Prejudice" is obvious enough. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is murdered. Nobody could possibly take social precedence of her on that social occasion. All would rejoice that she would go out of the room before the rest. In every other way, the grouping of the rest of the characters seems deliberately designed for a detective story, of the older and more melodramatic sort. The first suspicion must necessarily fall on Mr. Darcy (who was, if I remember right, her nephew and her heir); a dark, sinister, solitary figure, already unpopular by his unsociable habits and seemingly inhumane arrogance. Yes; the first suspicion of the first detective must be that the crime was committed by Mr. Darcy; possibly helped, or hindered, by Mr. Bingley, as a very reluctant and wavering accomplice. Effective scenes might be made out of the police examination of Mr. Bennet; whose sardonic answers leave the detective in great doubt about whether Mr. Bennet means that he did commit the murder, or merely that he is sincerely repentant for his negligence in not doing so. A grand finale in which the crime was finally brought home to Mr. Collins, who had rebelled at last against a life of servility and humiliation, would satisfy poetical justice; but I fear would not satisfy the extremely prosaic truthfulness of Miss Jane Austen.
It is our duty to hope and pray for all the immortal souls of men; but, while abjuring absolutely the detestable determinism of Calvin, I doubt in the common human sense whether Mr. Collins could ever rise so high in the moral scales as murder. Yet I would rather have the crime committed by Mr. Collins than by Mr. Wickham, who is the nearest approach to a villain who can be found in such a novel. Mr. Wickham floats over our heads in a sort of upper air of triviality and trickery, like an elf; he cannot be convicted as a criminal except perhaps as a sort of aerial pick-pocket, exactly fitted to the euphemism about "the light-fingered gentry." Those light fingers were never made for the necessary but repugnant task of strangling Lady Catherine de Bough; those little hands were never made to tear out those august and malevolent eyes. In this case, so far as I am concerned, I confess that my mystery story is still a mystery. I do not know who murdered Lady Catherine de Bourgh; indeed, it would be a slight exaggeration to say that I have any full and final authority for saying she was murdered. But there is just as good evidence for it as there is for a vast number of the most fashionable and popular theories of evolution, origins of ethics, comparisons of religions, and descriptions of prehistoric men. It has just come into my head; which seems to be all that is necessary for a really promising scientific hypothesis. Perhaps a psycho-analyst will rewrite all the novels; and show that the apparent weak-mindedness of Mrs. Bennett covered a subconscious violence or a sadistic psychosis, that was bound sooner or later to terminate in gore.
This is all a very idle and rambling speculation, which I hope is quite free from all that poison of controversy or propaganda, of which I am sometimes accused. Nobody, I hope, can regard a love of Jane Austen as a controversial matter [...] But it might at least supply something in the nature of a new game. It would be amusing to go over some very familiar work [...] and reconstruct the relations of all the characters, in the light of their relation to some hidden crime that does not occur in the existing story [...] Indeed, the end game seems to give new possibilities to the old game about choosing a book for a desert island. The Robinson Crusoe who took one book might turn it into ten or twenty books, by an ingenious system of telling the tale to himself in ten or twenty versions.
-May 23, 1936, Illustrated London News