All of Pemberley is getting ready for the annual Lady Anne Ball, and all seems to be going as planned. That is, until Elizabeth’s (uninvited) sister Lydia shows up. She’s all in a tizzy, going on about gunshots in the woods and begging someone to find her husband, fearing for his life. When the search party finds Wickham, he is alive. However, he’s covered in blood and standing above the body of his best friend, Captain Denny. So begins the mystery of the murder of Captain Denny, which will certainly bring scandal on Pemberley and the Darcys and might end up with Wickham hanging from the gallows. This is “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James.
There have been many attempted sequels and prequels to Jane Austen’s novels, with varying degrees of success. One would think that the idea of a crime fiction novel based on the characters of Austen’s best loved book, written by one of the world’s best crime fiction writers, would make a match made in heaven. In fact, it should have been just the thing to get all those macho men interested in Austen. But unfortunately, something went amiss between concept and execution.
First of all, I want it to be completely clear that James’ prose is totally spot-on. She captures the mood and style to perfection. Furthermore, there’s not even an iota of action throughout the story that would seem in the least bit incongruous for even the minor characters. In this, James proved from the first paragraphs that she knows her Austen inside and out. She deftly mimics Austen beautifully, and almost never falls into any pitfalls that might have turned this tribute into a mockery.
As for crime fiction, we all know there are few writers out there who can match James’ acumen for the genre. Her Inspector Dalglish novels are a marvel of creativity and ingenuity, with just the right amounts of deception and foreshadowing. James is the envy of other authors who attempt to match her ability, and is well deserving of all the praise heaped upon her by her devoted fans.
How then is it that all of these exemplary attributes didn’t combine into a hybrid masterpiece that we were all certain should have been the result? How is it possible that this book ended up plodding along until it smacked us in the face with a comically timed solution that came to us almost out of nowhere? Did I miss something along the way? That’s not like me. So if I did, then either I skimmed through only those essential passages that might have hinted at the resolution or the clues were just too indistinct for me to realize their significance. For me, the best part of a crime fiction book is that “ah-ha” moment when all those seemingly random little bits and pieces fall gently into place when we find out “whodoneit,” how and why. I’m sorry to say that this magical moment was sorely missing from this book.
My personal theory as to why this didn’t work is very simple. Most good crime fiction has a main character (or group of people) whose sole purpose is to discover who really committed the crime, how they did it and what their motive was. They lead us through the investigation and happen upon all of those key pieces of information and bring forth all the suspects, which can lead us astray or guide us to the answer. We become intimately familiar with this person (or group), along with their idiosyncrasies or emotional baggage that both distracts and embellishes the story. Here, there is no one doing this — at least not anyone that we hear about. This means the focus of the book is totally on the periphery of the crime and its impact on the people of Pemberley, and not solving the murder itself.
It is possible that James felt that we are already intimately familiar with all of Austen’s characters. Because of this, giving one of them the task of solving the crime would seem out of character. Her only option would have been to introduce new character(s) who could fulfill this role. Actually, she did give us some of these, and they were instrumental in uncovering the truth. However, it seems to me that what happened was she didn’t want Austen’s own creations taking a back seat to some upstart, and that is what let her down.
James knew that this wasn’t a successful attempt, and she says so herself in her introduction to the book, where she apologizes to both her readers and the late Miss Austen. In the end, we must forgive her for succumbing to this temptation and remember that one bad apple cannot rot a whole bushel of good ones. I’ll be generous and give three out of five stars to this book, but I cannot really recommend it as anything more than a curiosity piece.