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P.D. James Tackles Jane Austen

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If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, Jane Austen is certainly blessed. Her novels have sold millions worldwide, been made into feature films, and spawned a whole legion of other books billed as sequels. Pride and Prejudice remains the most popular. Fans are loathe to say goodbye to Darcy and Elizabeth (it didn’t hurt that the A&E series starred Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth) so we’ve seen Lizzie battle zombies, solve crimes, deliver advice on manners, share her recipes and even her crochet designs. We also have Jane Austen for Dummies, lest there be some tidbit left out of all the other books.

Finally there’s an author who is up to the challenge—P.D. James who herself has created one of the mystery world’s most admired detectives, Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. James picks up the story of Darcy and Elizabeth six years after their marriage. Happily ensconced in the grand estate of Pemberley, the couple now have twin boys and, it seems, a fairytale life. Elizabeth’s older and favorite sister, Jane, lives nearby with her husband, Bingley, and they visit frequently. Mary, the least attractive sister, has married a minister and seems very happy. Kitty, the youngest, is still living at Longbourne with her parents but, we assume, that she (and her mother) have not abandoned hope that she will one day wed.

Remember the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Overall, James does a good job mimicking Austen’s style of writing from the opening line:

It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.

There are no earth-shaking surprises in Death Comes to Pemberley, although there are some revelations at the end of the book that will not seem farfetched to longtime fans of P&P. The actual crime, however, is rather tame and the villain well known to fans of the original work. A death occurs on the Pemberley grounds on the eve of the estate’s famous autumn ball. The affair touches Darcy and Elizabeth and they are drawn into the ensuing investigation and trial.

James has tempered Lady Catherine de Bourgh who appears in this novel only through her letters. After the death of Lady Catherine’s sickly daughter, Elizabeth displayed unusual kindness to a woman who once wished her ill, and those gestures, apparently, softened the elder lady’s heart. Mr. Collins, however, who married Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas, after being turned down by Elizabeth, still harbors enmity towards Elizabeth and takes advantage of all occasions to deliver his condescending words.

George Wickham, whose elopement with Elizabeth’s  wayward sister, Lydia, precipitated the crisis in P&P, distinguished himself in war, but still causes trouble on the home front. When his best friend, Denny, is found dead in the woods around Pemberley, he emerges as the chief suspect. Thus Darcy’s dilemma. Does he help to defend someone who once sought to take advantage of Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana, by pressuring her to elope in order to claim her fortune? And, of course, Wickham’s elopement with Lydia nearly destroyed Darcy’s own plan for happiness with Elizabeth.

The pleasure in Death Comes to Pemberley comes less from being caught up in the plot and more in being caught up, once again, in the lives of characters who are so beloved. We enjoy spending time at Pemberley, living vicariously through Elizabeth. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in one of those over-the-top English mansions with a flock of servants at beck and call? Then, of course, who hasn’t dreamed of ending up with Darcy (OK, Firth), in literature’s ultimate romance?

James has done her usual thorough job researching the time period, educating us along the way with the English judicial system, code of etiquette, manner of dress, and many other things. Towards the end of the book, she tries too hard to tie up all of Austen’s loose ends, having Darcy apologize to Elizabeth for his first clumsy proposal and yes, his pride. One would think that after six years of marriage the two had talked these subjects to death.

That’s a small criticism, however. What James has provided is a very enjoyable read that does Austen proud. Now we hope she will soon publish another mystery with Adam Dalgliesh. While James can certainly add to the legacy of other writers, we much prefer when she continues to embellish her own.

Death Comes to Pemberley
P.D. James

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