I picked up this book in galley form purely by chance one afternoon at the bookstore I work in, and then couldn't put it down. Luckily for you, I was very late in reading it and it became available on March 20th in finished form.
Our nameless protagonist is a pickpocket--an excellent one. He roams Tokyo--its streets, its trains--smoothly lifting the wallets of the unsuspecting. Although he is not at all befuddled, there is a certain sense that he is operating in a fugue state, as though by concentrating on the details of these crimes, he is seeking to avoid awareness of his larger life. We have the sense that he has been doing this for awhile now, without any larger aims than keeping afloat, but life is about to come crashing in on him anyway. Without intending to, he becomes involved with a mother and son. The mother's the kind you'd call Child Protective Services on in the U.S. but the Thief is probably not the sort of person who would call the authorities in any country. His relationship with the boy recalls many stories with an unlikely stranger being thrust into the role of guardian of a small child, but it's no less compelling for that.
The past has come back to haunt the Thief in a big way, too. Through his connection to an earlier crime he is roped into a home robbery, and things spiral out of control from there. To be honest, the one element of the story that rang a bit untrue for me was the nihilistic darkness of the chief villain. But then I happened to read the beginning of a book called Tokyo Vice, which was written by an American journalist in Japan named Jake Adelstein. After his description of the gangster mentality there, I could be persuaded that the philosophical villain of this novel is, if anything, a little underwritten as far as ruthlessness goes.
The Thief reminded me in very different ways of both Barry Eisler's first couple of John Rain novels, Rain Fall and Hard Rain because of the Tokyo setting and the attentiveness to detail in the various criminal operations the Thief is involved in, and the sad but yearning tones of Banana Yoshimoto's latest novel (in English) The Lake. And that's not a combination you see everyday.
This one is something of a disappointment. I hesitated writing it up here, because I have nothing but respect for the Baroness James, and have read most of her work with appreciation and admiration. When this novel came out, more than one person I know questioned the value of this venture, and I have to say I found it all a bit irritating. Why shouldn't a master of the modern mystery set a crime at the fabled Pemberly. Why, at 92, and still sharp and curious about things, shouldn't she write about anything she likes?
I still defend that position, actually. The fact that the novel at hand doesn't quite measure up to my expectations doesn't actually mean it was a terrible idea. That said, though, there are some inherent problems in turning a Jane Austen novel into a P.D. James novel. Those of you are fans of James will understand this if you think about it for a moment. Although I think Phyllis Dorothy James has a fair amount of wit, judging from interviews I've seen, as a novelist, she takes on a more dour persona. People tend to be on the cooler, unlaughing side, and trouble, such as murder, tends to make them worse. The P. D. James universe is a pretty dark one, actually. People who are not selfish, self-absorbed or cruel tend to be either mired down in problems or naive ( read here, "lambs to the slaughter") or at the best extremely introspective (Dalgliesh, I'm looking at you).
Darcy, in fact, turns out to be a bit of a Dalgleish doppelganger in Death Comes to Pemberly. You know how Dalgleish is, uh, very, very tenative about whether he should progress in his later life romance with Cambridge lecturer Emma Lavenham? Well, Darcy is Dalgleish in this novel. Having married one of the most scintillating heroines of all time doesn't seem to have lightened his world very much. And this is before the murder.
I read this on an elaborate short trip a week ago, involving trains, planes and automobiles. And buses. And light rail. Despite not being totally happy with the situation of the novel--Pemberly had more problems than I would have foreseen, but this was no doubt much more likely, realistically speaking--I was very glad to have a James book be the thing I turned to to pass the time, because, as usual, she is able to build the world of the book very convincingly. It's an interesting place to go. But the very convincingness of the world she creates is part of the problem. Will I ever be able to think of Darcy and Elizabeth as not weighed down by the cares and responsibilities of their station in life again?
There may in fact be a title more appropriate, more true to Darcy's later role in the life of Elizabeth, although to be honest, I haven't read it. It is by one Amanda Grange and is called, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. For certainly the Mr. Darcy of Death Comes to Pemberly will eventually suck all the life and liveliness out of poor Elizabeth Bennet. She doesn't stand a chance.