Monday, January 30, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James

Death Comes to Pemberley
by PD James
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2011
291 pages

Funny story: none of us the wiser, my father-in-law bought this book for my mother-in-law for Christmas. She bought me a copy. I bought my mother a copy. I have since found out that two of my aunts also received copies for Christmas. I would say that PD James, judging from my admittedly small and rather biased sample size (we all love the British mysteries) has made a veritable killing on this book. Pun intended.

Not sure I'd bother to pick up another "sequel," as I quite like where Austen left things off, and there's such a glut of ... uh, forgive me, but I will call it glorified fan fiction. I'm sure some of it is good. But the reason I wanted to read this in particular is... well, PD James. Come on. I admit to a certain amount of rubbernecking here. I didn't want it to be a disaster. I really hoped she could pull it off, because I thought if anyone one could, PD James could.

So, despite it being PD James, I had tempered expectations for this book, which I think was a good thing. If I had come into it expecting brilliance all around, I would have been disappointed; PD James is not Jane Austen, after all. But I came into it expecting fun and a good mystery, and that is precisely what I got, with moments of brilliance thrown in. James can sound an awful lot like Austen at times, which is the point; I think my favourite Austen-ish moment was the following passage, referring to our, er, old friend Mr. Collins: "He began by stating that he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful."

The plot runs like so: the night before the annual ball, Lydia Wickham (not invited) shows up in hysterics: her husband had been murdered! He and his friend Captain Denny got in a fight and then there were gunshots and she's sure Wickham is dead. Naturally her abrupt arrival and dramatic disclosure disorders the normally ordered and pleasant life at Pemberley, and this story is an examination of the social and psychological consequences of murder.

It's not a standard mystery. There's no investigator, really, in that Darcy and Elizabeth are probably the closest we have, but Darcy is constrained by his ownership of Pemberley and clear connections to the accused, and Elizabeth is constrained by her status as a woman. The reader has more information than either, and I didn't figure it out. And to be honest, I wasn't terribly impressed by the thing once we discover the truth; it felt a bit hollow, which perhaps was the intent? James is pretty adamant that the murder mystery not be about the murder but about the way the survivors react, the way it changes their lives. That is precisely what we are looking at here. The mystery, and the solving of it, aren't really the focus here. The focus is on the contortions that the Darcys and those around them have to suffer thanks to the disaster of a violent death in the vicinity, and it's a bit of an examination of the forces in play that lead to the murder, all of which rings depressingly true.

James must have had quite a lot of fun playing with characters she knows so well and clearly loves, and there are sometimes little winking asides to the reader (how is it possible that she and Darcy fell in love in such a short time, Elizabeth wonders -- if it was fiction, no one would believe it) and mentions of other familiar and beloved Austen characters. I don't remember Lydia being quite so awful, but her awfulness is a logical progression from where she started in Pride and Prejudice; Georgiana has grown up, Jane is still quite herself. Elizabeth I found a little disappointing, in that the sparkling wit and acerbity I loved so much in the original seems to be lacking a bit here; necessarily James has to follow Darcy more closely than Elizabeth, because he is the one with access to the important conversations and revelations by dint of being male. She's got him down, I think, a man still battling with his pride and his prejudices, comfortably ensconced in the society he's grown up in and yet quite reasonable and relatable to a 21st century woman. What I mean to say is that James has very effectively avoided the trap of making Darcy and Elizabeth and the others modern. They're not, and because of this they feel more real.

The writing, as mentioned above, I quite enjoyed overall, though I did think there were occasions where an editor might have been a little more ruthless. There were some redundancies that felt clumsy, some rather ham-handed exposition (though this, I think, might be fairly true to the source material) and occasionally the moody foreshadowing got a bit much. However, James lays out the events of the original book with a skilled hand, such that we don't feel we're reading a blow-by-blow recap, but all the important bits are in place before we get too far along in the story. It's cleverly done. And towards the end, during the trial, I was absolutely captivated. My heart was actually racing, and we're talking about an extended scene where there's not much more going on than people talking and Darcy observing, being completely incapable of action. Writers who feel their book needs an explosion or fast chase scene or other physical action at the climax in order to be exciting should take note.

Overall, great fun. I would recommend reading the original first if you haven't already, because while this book is good it can't touch the original. But as something written carefully and lovingly by a great fan, especially one with her own authorial cred, I would definitely recommend this book to fans of Austen and fans of James.


Aarti said...

Oh, spending more time inside Mr. Darcy's head sounds like a FABULOUS time to me! I definitely plan to read this one :-)

Unknown said...

It's fun, but maybe a bit darker than I expected? Darcy is great, though occasionally a little bland in his correctness.

ehsani said...

Spot on!

I also reviewed the book here:

and exactly same thing occurred to me: I think in spite of all the notable things, this book had too much fluff in it and also the recaps to Pride and Prejudice were to some extent excessive

Unknown said...

Thanks for commenting! I didn't mind the recaps too much, and she got them out of the way pretty quickly without feeling like it was just recounting exactly what had happened. I think it helps that it's been years since I last read Pride and Prejudice so the refresher was helpful. However, for someone more familiar with the original I could see where it might have felt a bit overdone.