What could be better than an Austen love story combined with a mystery? This is what P.D. James has done in her recent release of Death Comes to Pemberley. Pemberley is the home of Mr. Darcy and now his wife, Elizabeth (Bennett) Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. At the start of the story, Elizabeth, Darcy, Col. Fitzwilliam, and Charles and Jane (Bennett) Bingley are making final preparations for the Lady Anne ball. Elizabeth and Jane’s youngest sister, Lydia arrives unannounced and hysterics, screaming that her husband, Wickham is dead. But it’s not Wickham who is found dead, it’s his good friend Denny. Wickham is arrested and tried for the murder. Despite his loathing of Wickham, Darcy doesn’t believe he’s a murderer.
I would not describe myself as a die-hard Janeite. I don’t mind when directors have the characters kiss in the movie adaptations. In fact I like it. But, when I read a book (or see a movie) I want the characters to behave the way they were originally written. That’s where Death Comes to Pemberley falls short. While some of the characters are written true to form (Jane, Charles, Wickham, Lydia and Darcy), James fails to capture Elizabeth’s wit. Granted, she’s married with two children and a large estate to manage, which could mellow her out a bit. But I don’t believe she would have settled into the role expected by society. While Pride and Prejudice is a love story, it also pokes fun at late eighteenth century social norms. Elizabeth isn’t afraid to point out social rules that make no sense or stand up for herself against people who are in a higher station than her. P.D. James’ Elizabeth doesn’t do any of that. In several situations she could speak her mind, but doesn’t. There are only a few occasions in which James’ captures Elizabeth’s wit. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t figure very prominently in the book at all, which makes sense since as a woman she wouldn’t have been allowed to participate much in a murder investigation. Although we see a lot of him, Darcy isn’t very involved either. I expected the two of them to investigate and solve the crime, but in fact the resolution comes in a Perry Mason type last minute testimony.
Having never read P.D. James before, I can’t compare it to her other works.
I enjoyed the book overall. Austen fans might get a kick hearing about Captain Wentworth and Anne (Elliot) Wentworth from Persuasion, although I think the timing is off. Death Comes to Pemberley takes place in 1803 and I’m pretty sure Persuasion doesn’t take place until 1811 or there abouts (I remember a quote in which Wentworth says something to the effect he wasn’t in a position to get married in ’06 which is about the time Anne turned his first proposal down). James also lets us know about the Knightley’s and Harriet Smith of Austen’s book Emma.