P.D. James is probably best known for her Inspector Adam Dalgleish mysteries, which have been adapted for TV and have won James loyal fans the world over and several writing awards. In Death Comes To Pemberley, James applies her formidable skills as a crime writer to the early 19th century and creates a sharp murder mystery that happens to involve characters from one of British Literature’s best loved novels — Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie, Jane, Darcy, Bingley, Lydia and Wickham are all featured, as well as a few minor characters from P&P and characters of James’ own invention. Other authors have tried before to recreate the magic of P&P with novels that try to imagine “what happened next.” I haven’t read ’em because I love that novel and Darcy and Lizzie too much to risk the inevitable disappointment, but in addition to being an Austen fan, I also respect and admire James’ work, so I gave this a chance. Whether you are a lover of Austen or of murder mysteries, you should be quite satisfied with Death Comes To Pemberley.
The action opens at Pemberley, the Darcy family estate in Derbyshire, with plans underway for the yearly ball. Lizzie’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley are there, as are Darcy’s sister Georgiana, his cousin Col. Fitzwilliam and a newcomer, Mr. Alveston, barrister from London and acquaintance of the Bingleys. The servants are all on active duty in busy preparation for the ball, when crashing (almost literally) onto the scene comes Lydia Wickham, her carriage approaching Pemberley at breakneck speed. Lydia practically falls out of the carriage, looking crazed and hysterically screaming that her husband George Wickham and Captain Denny (friend of Wickham from P&P) have fought in the woods and that Wickham is dead. A search party consisting of Darcy (who happens to be a local magistrate), Fitzwilliam and Alveston, return with the carriage driver to the woods and discover Wickham weeping over Capt. Denny’s body, confessing responsibility for his best friend’s death. But did Wickham kill Denny? Why were they in the woods? Lydia hadn’t been invited to the ball and Wickham was not welcome at Pemberely as everyone from Hertfordshire to Derbyshire knew. What sort of scheme was Wickham hatching this time?
I am happy to report that in the hands of PD James, Lizzie and Darcy do not become some sort of “McMillan & Wife” who sleuth around and solve mysteries. Having made Darcy a magistrate, James is very careful to detail what sort of responsibilities he would have in a crime of this nature and how his responsibilities would be complicated by the fact that the crime occurred on his property and involved a member of his family. Other local officials, such as Magistrate Sir Selwyn Hardcastle and Dr.Obadiah Belcher, the medical examiner/coroner, take on the initial investigation of the murder, resulting in an inquest at which 12 local men determine that there is enough evidence for a trial. From there, the action moves to London’s Old Bailey for the murder trial.
James deftly lays out both how the early 19th century criminal system worked and where it failed: the lack of care with evidence (moving the body and murder weapon before they could be examined by “experts”); the role of juries made up of local men; the need for trial reform. James also shows that trials often provided entertainment for the masses, much like today, with average folk clamoring for a seat in the courtroom when someone with connections and wealth was on trial and loudly protesting verdicts rendered.
If your main reason for reading Death Comes To Pemberley is the Austen connection, James does an outstanding job of maintaining the integrity of her characters and consistency with the plot of Pride and Prejudice. James seamlessly weaves concise plot summaries into her own story as needed so that those unfamiliar with P&P will be able to follow along. James also cleverly fills in some blanks from P&P using her own imagination. For example, she provides her own explanation as to how Lady Catherine DeBurgh came to suspect a budding relationship between Darcy and Lizzie. She also provides a family history for the Darcys which involves the suicide of a great grandfather and its impact on the family through the generations. And there is the inevitable romantic conflict, this time involving Darcy’s younger sister and two possible suitors for her hand.
But what most impresses is the way James channels the spirit of Austen’s writing. The opening paragraph is so perfectly Austenesque, I swooned:
“It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourne had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters. Meryton, a small market town in Hertfordshire, is not on the route of any tours of pleasure, having neither beauty of setting nor a distinguished history, while its only great house, Netherfield Park, although impressive, is not mentioned in books about the county’s notable architecture. The town has an assembly room where dances are regularly held but no theatre, and the chief entertainment takes place in private houses where the boredom of dinner parties and whist tables, always with the same company, is relieved by gossip.”
Death Comes To Pemberley works as a P.D. James crime novel and as a paean to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I do believe Jane would approve.