Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

This is how I see it. Living to 91 is an achievement in itself, let alone write a book at that age. I admire the adventurous spirit of P. D. James, sailing out to new waters at this stage of her career. This is her first attempt at creating an Austen sequel, a Pride and Prejudice fan fiction. So, how do I reconcile the flaws in this book with her previous acclaimed mystery works?  Let’s just say… the editor did it.

Take for example the error in referring Darcy as an Oxford man, who had actually gone to Cambridge, and with Wickham too. The ubiquitous redundancy of retelling, or the irrelevant details such as taking an inventory of how many candles are lit in which room.

Or, this dialogue between Sir Selwyn’s, the magistrate, and Darcy, as Darcy goes to his home to report to him a body is found in the woodlands. Are lines like these necessary? I find them incredibly amusing. Greeting Darcy, Sir Selwyn says:

Please sit. That chair with the carved back is said to be comfortable and should hold your weight.”

Since it was the chair Darcy usually occupied he had every confidence that it would. He seated himself and told his story…

The book begins with an epilogue detailing the story of Pride and Prejudice framed by a Jamesian view. It then starts off with the Darcy household preparing for the annual Lady Anne’s Ball at Pemberley, a tradition honouring Darcy’s mother ever since he was a child. A screaming Lydia comes charging in, uninvited, manically hysterical. Somebody has shot her dear husband Wickham, she claims. A search party led by Colonel Fitzwilliam soon takes action, and a body is found lying in the dense woodlands on Pemberley grounds. Wickham, very much alive, is seen hovering over it, blood stained and drunk. The episode comes early, the rest of the book is the revealing of the facts, whodunnit and why.

This is no CSI. The body is removed once found and brought back to Pemberley. Wickham, the key witness also now the key suspect, is washed clean of the blood on him, given a sedative, and is deep asleep when the magistrate arrives to question him. The later inquest at Lambton and final trial at London’s Old Bailey sound like child’s play when compared to, what comes to mind for me, Dicken’s Bleak House trials.

Simple, straight forward, not much mystery to it. But readers get to be entertained by James’ literary rendering and imagination of all the main characters from Pride and Prejudice, six years after it has ended in Austen’s hands. Darcy and Elizabeth now are parents to two boys, Fitzwilliam, 5, and Charles, 2. Readers so fond of their courtship would be disappointed at not seeing them together much in the book. Georgiana still lives in Pemberley, has two suitors, Colonel Fitzwilliam and a young lawyer Alveston, who seems to have a much higher chance.

At the end, we see the problem that has given rise to the motive of the crime neatly resolved by … Harriet Smith, who is married to farmer Robert Martin, no kidding. You’re right, that’s the Harriet Smith who used to go to a successful girl’s school run by Mrs. Goddard in Highbury, and the farmer Robert Martin who is a good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Knightley. All characters from Emma. This part reads like a parody. But we ought to be familiar with this sort of things by now in our current culture, a total mash-up.

All in all, I say, don’t resist your curiosity. Despite its flaws, and if you don’t take Austen or James too seriously, this just could make one great escape from all the demands of rationality in your daily routines.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


For all Jane Austen / Pride and Prejudice fans, this review from The Guardian is a must-read.