Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

From the back cover:
P. D. James draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.

It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up to the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

When I learned about this book on NPR, I was torn between trepidation and mad curiosity. The latter, as you can see, won out, mostly because I am a huge fan of P. D. James and if figured that if anyone could treat Austen’s material with respect, she could. And, indeed, her treatment of these beloved characters did not give any offense, but neither did it give anything near the delight inspired by Austen’s original work.

First, a brief summary of the plot. It is Autumn 1803. Elizabeth and Darcy have been happily married for six years and have two sons. On the eve of the annual ball at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s willful sister Lydia shows up unannounced (and uninvited), freaking out because she and the coachman heard gunshots soon after her no-good husband Wickham went into the woods after his friend, Captain Denny. A search party finds a drunken Wickham with Denny’s body, at which point he utters words to the effect of, “It’s my fault. He was my only friend, and I have killed him.” The local magistrate conducts his inquiries, there is a formal inquest, there is a trial, and then the full story is revealed.

As a Pride and Prejudice continuation, the book is not odious. It is, however, lacking any of Austen’s sparkle. Events leave Elizabeth and Darcy little time to be alone together, except at the very end, where James tacks on an epilogue in which Darcy, after six years, suddenly apologizes for some of his conduct in the original novel. It makes me wonder whether James believes readers could not surmise that Darcy would feel regret over his more snooty actions without spelling it out. Gone too are Austen’s sly and thoughtful observations upon society, except for one brief instance wherein chronic invalids are suddenly recovered sufficiently to attend church in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Pemberley residents.

The result, therefore, is a book that is dreadfully dull. I was relieved to see that Elizabeth and Darcy do not suddenly become sleuths, but found the revelation of what really happened in the woodland to be rather vague and unsatisfying. While I cannot condemn the book for any particular sin, about the only praise I can muster is that James does provide some interesting fates for various characters and proposes an intriguing complication regarding Wickham’s attempted elopement with Georgiana Darcy.

Is it worth reading? No, not really. But I doubt anyone will feel the urge to hurl the book across the room in disgust, either.

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