Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James review

by The Listener / 14 February, 2013
Jane Austen’s Pemberley is the setting for PD James’s ultimate country house murder mystery.
It is a truth not universally acknow­ledged, that a novel like Pride and Prejudice in possession of a good ­fortune after 198 years, is not in want of any more sequels, prequels or ghoul-infested pastiches.

Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James’s 19th novel, is the latest in a long – and in other cases overwhelmingly insipid – line of Austen-inspired fiction. In a rather arch author’s note, she apologises “to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation”. The shades of Pemberley have been never been so well polluted, even if it is with blood and skull fragments.

After a brisk recap of Pride and Prejudice, and an even terser (but amusing) flit over six years, we find ourselves in the autumn of 1803. England is at war with France, and fear of invasion penetrates even the peaceful lives of Darcy, Elizabeth and their two sons (mercifully kept in the wings).

Georgiana’s visible attachment to a handsome but penniless young barrister stirs up uneasy memories. There is the annual ball to look forward to, until Lydia Wickham appears in a scene from one of the Gothic melodramas so adeptly parodied in Northanger Abbey. She is convinced her husband has been murdered (a well-controlled thread that is woven throughout the novel). The truth is much worse, and the consequences potentially more severe than cancelling a party.

George Wickham, of course, is charged with murder. The apparently open-and-shut case ends up being much more complicated than it first seems. The mystery is solidly constructed, every clue fairly hidden in plain sight, and the solution scrupulously fair. James’s prose lacks Austen’s high style and feline wit, but her eye for telling details is elegant and precise, as ever.

But this is what PD James readers have come to expect since her debut publication in 1962. Where Pemberley really distinguishes itself, and will infuriate some, is that Darcy and Wickham are both given histories and inner lives. They are diminished as Romantic hero and Byronic seducer, but they become more rounded as a result. I also miss Elizabeth’s sharp tongue but consider James’s unexpectedly moving portrait of a happy marriage – and how they finally come to a full understanding of each other – a fair exchange.

Death Comes to Pemberley will never displace Pride and Prejudice as perhaps the greatest romantic comedy ever told. But inspiration, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery.

DEATH COMES TO ­PEMBERLEY, by PD James (Faber and Faber, $36.99).

Craig Ranapia ­contributes culture blog
Muse to Public Address.
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