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Death Comes to Pemberley

by P.D. James

Alfred A. Knopf | 2011 | 304 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

pd james

Pride and Prejudice Revisited

Fresh from rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the first time in xx years, and crying, "More, more," what a treat it was to slip so seamlessly and shamelessly into P.D. James's "sequel," Death Comes to Pemberley.

For women of a certain age, for countless numbers of fans worldwide - Austen's book has often been rated the most popular novel ever written – P & P evokes fond memories: discovering Elizabeth Bennet's witty, independent, modern spirit so like our own; following breathlessly the boy-meets-girl, boy-shuns-girl, girl-slaps-down-boy, boy-loves-girl, girl-spurns-boy, girl-loves-boy, girl-gets-boy and (whew!) boy-gets-girl plot, and inevitably falling for the elusive Mr. Darcy ourselves.

How we hated to bid goodbye to sister-confidante Jane, the other three silly airhead sisters, that embarrassment of a mother, the cool and rational, drama-avoidant father hiding out in his 19th century man cave/library, and even the devilishly handsome and suave Wickham, serial seducer of underage girls!

If you're the type who wants to know what happens after the “And they lived happily ever after” moment, you will want to investigate James's version. Of course, as was to be expected, this renowned British author of murder mysteries has turned Pride and Prejudice into one, too (with apologies to Austen). It shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. She’s genre jumping from formal balls where accomplished young ladies perform at the pianoforte, to gruesome happenings in the Woodland, which takes some inner adjustments of the time travel variety – on the reader’s part.

     Some gambles work better than others.  Deeply satisfying is James’s tidying up of Austen’s loose ends.  She so thoroughly understands the Bennets and entourage that she’s able to flesh out the original story line, explain why certain people acted as they did, offering up psychological motivation in a few places where it was sorely needed.  Then she picks up the threads and weaves them into a whole new tapestry.  The reader delights in being able to spend more time with beloved characters and to see in which directions their lives take them.

Less satisfying: the murder mystery itself, even with its gothic flourishes, and its insights into the British court procedures of two centuries ago.  We now have a comedy of legal manners which is less engaging than the ballroom variety, at least to this reader’s eyes. Being British herself probably facilitated James’s ability to fully enter the times she’s writing about and to create a setting of utmost plausibility and verisimilitude.

However, following the twists and turns of the plot to the conclusion does not yield much payback.  While the details of the mystery are not unveiled until the final moments, certainly some suspicions were justified and others, just not that surprising.

The biggest letdown of course is that this “sequel,” for all its merits, is not another Jane Austen creation.  As wonderful as the setting and tone that’s been recreated for the pleasure of Austen fans, is the disappointment that sets in when we see what James has decided to do with the cast, and how she squanders their rich potential.  Where is the feisty Jane that we love?  She appears to have settled into married life (with children) and to be leading an utterly conventional existence with Darcy, with whom she scarcely spends any time in this novel.  While we’re told that she shocks his sister with her teasing (but loving) approach to her husband, we sadly see (or hear) none of that.  

Likewise we are told that Bingley and Jane are happily married, also with kids, but . . . was Tolstoy right?  Are happy families all alike?  Dull?

     This reader longed for a more domestic scene and more . . . romance, to be frank.  The original is told from Elizabeth’s point of view and that was a rich viewpoint, imbued as it was with prejudices of which she was not even aware.  Her gradual awakening as to the true nature of those around her – Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliams, and Darcy – her maturing and taking bold steps to correct her mistakes are what fuels the novel and captivates the audience.  Taking that away and giving us a murder mystery instead?  Not a good move.  (Disclosure: I am not a reader of mystery novels, with the exception of Ruth Rendell.)

But with all that said and done, this novel remains a good read and will delight fans who long to live in that world just one more time.  This reader feels the way she did when she saw the movie, The X Files: I Want to Believe in 2008 (see my review here: http://www.seniorfilmfiles.com/the-x-files-i-want-to-believe). It’s so good to be in the company of well-loved characters again that she could put up with the mediocre story line.  The “reunion” was/is worth the price of admission! 

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