It is a truth universally acknowledged that a quaint English village must be struck by at least one bloody murder. And so it goes in Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Six years after Elizabeth Bennet marries Mr Darcy, Lydia Wickham barges into their home screaming that her husband has been murdered. Murder there certainly has been on Pemberley grounds, and Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are soon embroiled in the court’s investigation of the crime.
To be honest, I was a bit wary of this book. Pride and Prejudice is probably one of the most adapted novels ever. Walk around any Indigo and you’ll find sequels or prequels to the novel in the romance section, the general fiction section, even the mystery section. A quick online search of “Mr Darcy” turns up pages of results. Seriously. I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, and even battled Austen fatigue with the fun Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but when I see yet another Pride and Prejudice spin-off in a store, I can’t help but shudder.
That being said, Death Comes to Pemberley is by P.D. James, a master at crime fiction, with knotty psychological mysteries that are classics in the genre. If anything were to get me past my aversion of Austen spin-offs, having P.D. James as the author is certainly it.
I love James’ Author’s Note, where she writes that no doubt Jane Austen would have reacted to Death “by saying that, had [Austen] wished to dwell on such odious subjects [as murder], she would have written this story herself, and done it better.” James walks a fine line between paying homage to a literary classic written by an author James herself admires, and still making it very much a P.D. James novel. Overall, I think she does a great job. The language gets too coy at times — what may have been witty in a romantic social comedy just makes me say “get to the point” in this mystery — but overall a good read.
I love the psychological complexity James brings out in Austen’s characters. She made secondary characters like Charlotte Lucas and Georgiana Darcy much more three dimensional, and gave much more insight into Mr, Wickham and Mr. Darcy. I especially love that James doesn’t have a starry eyed view of the Elizabeth-Mr. Darcy romance, and even has Elizabeth herself feel uncertain:
It still surprised [Elizabeth] that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour. […] And would she herself have married Darcy had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney? It was difficult to envisage Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley as either, but honestly compelled an answer. Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.
I love that James was willing to take risks with Austen’s characters, and only wish she’d taken it further, and with other characters. I knew then that we were dealing with an older, more mature Elizabeth. The Elizabeth in Pride was intelligent, but she also prided herself on being superior to the frivolity of her mother and sisters. Her realization that she might have married Darcy for money shows her being more self-aware. James’ characters are also more socially conscious, very much aware of the turn of the century bringing in many changes. Georgiana stands up to her brother, arguing that in the new century, women have more of a voice. I love how James infuses her story with this awareness of the historical context — we get the sense of the change coming to Elizabeth’s world, and the characters are made aware of it by the events surrounding the murder.
The mystery itself is pretty good. I like how James ties in events from Pride to the case, like Darcy’s search for Lydia and Wickham, which we only learn about secondhand in Pride. The flashbacks got a bit boring at times; while everything turns out later to have been significant, I much preferred the present-day scenes. As well, while I liked finding out what happened to characters from Pride, I sometimes felt that it was unnecessary for James to include them. Characters like Charlotte Lucas, for example, seemed like they were mentioned just so they could make their cameo. That being said, I’m glad Mary had a satisfying marriage — I always felt she was given short shrift in Pride. Still, other than the Darcy family, I preferred reading about the new characters, because they had much more to do with the mystery.
The one thing I hated about Death is how James handled the ending. The big reveal was too sudden, very deus ex machina. As a reader, I read the reveal, thought back, and realized the significance of such and such a scene, or so and so a clue. So everything fit, but the story didn’t feel like it led up to that reveal. Elizabeth and Darcy had their own suspicions and questions, but there wasn’t an actual investigation, so the lead up just felt disjointed and the actual reveal convenient. I’m fine with Elizabeth and Darcy not turning into Tommy and Tuppence, but I wish Mr Alveston, or a police officer, had more of an active role investigating.
Minor quibble (and minor spoiler alert, skip to the next paragraph if you wish): I also wish Wickham really had been the one murdered. It just felt too much like a marketing ploy to have the murder of a major Pride character on the book jacket, only to have it be someone completely new (or at most a bit character in Pride).
Overall, a good mystery, enjoyable for fans of P.D. James and Jane Austen. James also creates a Gothic atmosphere around Pemberley, and I can almost imagine Catherine Moreland from Austen’s Northanger Abbey enjoying Death in Pemberley.