Like Janeites everywhere I asked for ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ by P.D. James, for Christmas. How could I resist, my favorite characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ reworked by one of my favorite crime writers? As the publisher said: “A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.” A concept novel that couldn’t miss. Or could it?
Attracting readers (and buyers) is one thing. Dame Phyllis’s publishers in the UK and the US knew what they were doing, releasing it during the big holiday book-buying season. I just wish the experience had matched the expectations.
Nothing is awful about ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ but nothing is all that great either. The story begins as Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily married for six years and have two young sons (which in aristocratic fashion they love but rarely see.) On the eve of a ball at Pemberley the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, arrives in typical fashion: in a crisis and hysterical. Her husband Wickham and old beau Captain Denny have disappeared in the woods nearby and gunshots were heard.
But before this action James feels it’s necessary to recap the entire story of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ This was unnecessary in my opinion. A classic novel, one of the most widely read in the English language, and the entire reason for the current work? It’s a fair assumption that the story is known by readers. If not, hey, go read it, people! Or watch one of half a dozen movies. The recap just made me antsy for the story.
Which would be fine if the rest of the story lived up to the original. That was silly of me, wasn’t it, to hope for an experience as magical as ‘Pride and Prejudice?’ Ah, I didn’t really, but yeah, okay, a little. The joy of the original was in the characters, their wit and charm and sparkling repartee. None of that wit and charm transmits in James’s prose. Darcy is upright and proper but little else. Elizabeth is a great hostess. Lydia is annoying. Wickham is a bad boy. But none of them live and breathe.
Even that might be okay if we were experiencing a classic PD James mystery, full of intelligent, cagy people and twists and turns. Unfortunately the entire story leads up to Wickham’s trial, mostly angst and historical facts about the English legal system. At one point James almost gives a dissertation on appellate courts. It’s just, sadly, dry as toast. And when it’s all over she favors us with a conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth to wrap things up, and wrap and endlessly wrap.
P.D. James is my hero! At 91 she is still writing novels. Maybe she’ll go back to Adam Dalgleish and modern problems. Many writers have written continuations of Austen novels before her, and more will probably in the future. If ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is any indication we’d all do better to go read Jane’s ouevre — again. They never disappoint.