Typically I’ve been quite skeptical of the recent spate of Jane Austen-inspired sequels and spin-offs. After all, who could possibly hope to approach Austen's own near-perfect prose style and satirical wit? But when I heard that P. D. James, one of the acknowledged masters of the classic whodunit, was taking on this masterpiece of classic literature, I was intrigued. It turns out that this match is just as unexpected --- and just as perfect --- as the union of Elizabeth Bennet with Mr. Darcy.
"Certainly James's novel is a credible and delightful homage to Austen's classic, but it is also (not surprisingly) a compelling whodunit in its own right."
For one thing, James approaches her subject both humbly and playfully, as can be seen right away in her author's apology that opens the book: "I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation…. No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better."
Not wishing to assume that all her readers are conversant with the characters and subplots of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, James next brings everyone up to speed with a clever, pitch-perfect nine-page summary of Austen's original novel before turning to her own setting: Pemberley --- the country manor of Fitzwilliam Darcy --- in 1803, six years after his marriage to Elizabeth. The happy couple now has two young sons, and Elizabeth (much to the disappointment of the naysayers to their marriage) has more than capably risen to the task of being the mistress of Pemberley. When the novel opens, Elizabeth is in the thick of last-minute preparations for Lady Anne's Ball, the key event on Pemberley's annual social calendar.
The night before the ball, however, Elizabeth's plans --- not to mention the comfortable sense of community and ease at Pemberley --- are more than disrupted when her younger sister Lydia arrives at the house in distress and disarray. She --- or, rather, her disreputable husband Wickham, who has a long and troubled history with the Darcy family --- has not been welcome at Pemberley for many years. But when Lydia arrives, speaking incoherently about shots in the woods and her husband's disappearance, Elizabeth and Darcy take her in. Soon Darcy and the other men take charge of the situation, discovering that Wickham's colleague, Captain Denny, has indeed been murdered, and it appears Wickham is the prime suspect. An inquest and trial soon follow, and the sense of propriety and privilege at Pemberley may never be the same.
P. D. James has always excelled at the country house murder mystery, and Pemberley is the quintessential literary country house, so it is perhaps no wonder that James is uniquely qualified to pull off a truly inspired Austen sequel. Although her writing possesses its own elegance, James doesn't try to replicate Austen's prose style. She also keeps postmodern commentary to a minimum, although readers will appreciate clever asides such as Elizabeth's reflection on her speedy change of heart toward Mr. Darcy: "If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?"
Certainly James's novel is a credible and delightful homage to Austen's classic, but it is also (not surprisingly) a compelling whodunit in its own right. Full of red herrings, plot twists and unexpected conclusions, DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY is a terrific portrait of the life of a 19th-century country house, a welcome reunion with beloved characters, and a gripping murder mystery, as attractive to Austen fans as it will be to mystery novel aficionados.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 15, 2011