Friday, December 16, 2011


I had this idea of combining my two great enthusiasmsone is for [Jane Austen's] novels, and the other is for writing crime fiction, detective stories—and try and do them together, and I enjoyed it immensely. I think she’d probably forgive me, because I have kept very closely to her characters, and I think I've made a sort of picture of life at Pemberley which she would have approved of…

Six years have gone by since the end of Pride and Prejudice when three of the five Bennet girls got married: Elizabeth to the stubborn Mr Darcy, Jane to the affable Mr Bingley, and Lydia to the odious Lieutenant Wickham. Now even Mary, the studious sister with limited people skills, is happily settled as a vicar's wife, and Kitty lives contentedly at home with the elder Bennets. What more could Jane Austen possibly do with this group? No one is desperately looking for a wealthy spouse or falling in love with an unsuitable person; thus no one can gossip, compete, despair, fall from grace, or wildly rejoice.

P.D. James has come to Derbyshire at just the right time.

Baroness James, as I'm sure you know, is one of the best crime writers alive. Her detective fiction bursts out of the genre: most of her books are well-crafted novels with fully developed characters and intricate plots. Her usual detective, Adam Dalgleish, is not only a brilliant investigator but also a poet and a heartthrob. She of all people would know that beneath the apparently smooth surface of life at Pemberley,  disaster lurks.

I'm not going to tell you about the murder or the suspicions or the trial, and I'm certainly not going to drop hints about the surprising dénouement. I'll just point out that Death Comes to Pemberley is a fun read, though not as much fun as Pride and Prejudice or, for that matter, the Dalgleish books (but then what is?). It begins in full Jane Austen mode—
It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters
—and continues with the occasional hat tip to Charlotte Brontë:
From time to time the wind howled in the chimney, the fire hissed and spluttered like a living thing and occasionally a burning log would break free, bursting into spectacular flames and casting a momentary red flush over the faces of the diners so that they looked as if they were in a fever.
Much of the story, however, concerns neither ladies' relationships nor nature's staging but rather the public lives and utterances of various men: Messrs Darcy, Bingley, Alveston, and Wickham; Colonel Fitzwilliam and Captain Denny; Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, Mr. Justice Moberley, Mr. Mickledore, Mr. Cartwright ... The comedy of manners quickly turns into a courtroom drama, and Elizabeth quietly leaves the stage.

In her author's note James says, "I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation." If an apology is needed, it is for quite the opposite reason: Elizabeth should have been more present, more involved, more significant to the story. Fortunately she returns to prominence in the final chapters, not—alas—with her original maidenly wit and cheek, but sweetly affirming her husband as he drones on and on, waiting for just the right moment to spring a surprise on him.

And yes, everyone lives happily ever after, which shouldn't be a spoiler. What, after all, would you expect when justice is served and romance flourishes?

P.S. If Jane Austen would lend some of her superfluous commas to P.D. James, both authors would be easier to read.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

LaVonne, as so often with your reviews, I ordered the book. The cover flyleaf seems to indicate who has been murdered, and I have to say that it couldn't happen to a better character.

Now to find out all the juicy bits - - -