When I read about this new novel by the 91-year-old mystery writer P.D. James, I downloaded it to my Kindle and started reading right away. It’s a real treat.
Death Comes to Pemberley
P.D. James’s Jane Austen mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley (304 pages, Knopf, $25.95) takes place is 1803, and Elizabeth and Darcy have been living at his Pemberley estate for several years. Jane and Bingley are settled nearby and come to visit often. The Darcys have two children, Fitzwilliam and Charles, and they are described as perfect little boys, of a kind, in fact that exist nowhere else in Austen.
James is kind to readers who may not have read Austen’s novel in some time. She rehearses a lot of what happened in that novel, and she bases everything that happens in this one on events and characters that Austen already created.
James has some fun too in linking this novel to Austen’s other novels. We hear about Anne Elliott and her father and sister (from Persuasion), at one point, and at another we hear about Robert and Harriet Martin, friends of the Knightleys (from Emma). This is a lot of fun, and what James does with those connections is utterly sensible.
The murder mystery is a bit of a stretch, but as I said on Facebook, it is better than Zombies. P.D. James shows enormous respect for Austen’s novel, and she gives her story details that are in keeping with Austen’s own tale.
The villain, once again, is Wickham; and this time he is suspected of murdering his friend Captain Denny in the woodland near Pemberley. Of course, Lydia verges on hysteria, and the older sisters do what they can to calm her down. But Wickham is charged and James introduces us to authentic details of early nineteenth-century jurisprudence.
James introduces a couple of new characters. One, Alveston, a handsome London lawyer who is in line for an inheritance, is courting the now delightful Georgiana, Darcy’s sister; and another, dying from a mysterious illness, is the young farmer, Will, who is a tenant on Darcy’s estate. He and his sister Louisa become central to the plot.
But most of the characters are familiar from Austen’s novel, and they do little that is out of character. Jane is nice to everyone; Elizabeth is witty and challenging. Darcy is supercilious at times, and Bingely is a genuinely good guy.
The story turns, though, on the character of Wickham, and his closing speech is one that is meant to rehabilitate him for both novels, I think.
P.D. James sets herself quite a challenge, trying both to rewrite Austen’s novel and to write it in Austen’s own style. James didn’t say that was her intention, but critics have insisted that you could almost be reading Austen as you get lost in the narrative. I don’t agree with that at all—Austen’s style is inimitable, as countless imitators have realized—but that doesn’t mean that this novel isn’t vintage P.D. James. It is that, and as such it is a novel to be read and reread. I recommend it!
P. D. James
Death Comes to Pemberley available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.