Saturday, March 3, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberly, by P.D. James

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.   


  1. It was a nice idea but the execution was terrible. (Just like the death of Col Gadaffi.)

    I also dont fault her for trying but I do wonder why the great Lizzy Bennet became such a crashing bore and dunce.

    1. I'm telling you, it was Darcy's fault. The sad thing is that she makes me believe it would actually be something like that in the end.

  2. As a lover of Jane Austen, if not a complete Austen fanatic, I was happy to spend this time at Pemberley, revisiting the characters from Pride and Prejudice and seeing their later lives depicted in a way that is faithful to the depth and complexity that Austen gave them. I was disappointed that there wasn't more time spent with Darcy and Elizabeth together, but that's more of a quibble than a serious criticism.

  3. Hummer, I'm glad you enjoyed it, as I'm sure she was writing it in good faith and for the Austenites. I am a fan of both Austen and James, but I find their styles not that reconcilable.