Oh, dear. I had such high hopes for Death Comes to Pemberley. I’m not a big fan of the mash-up and I’m traditional enough to believe that Miss Austen’s work shouldn’t be meddled with. But surely, if anyone was going to write a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, P.D. James was a good candidate. You’d need an author who could construct a plausible murder mystery and at the same time respect the context provided by the source material.
But, you know, maybe this project was doomed from the start. (Or maybe I’m a terrible crank: my online trawling showed me that many reviews have been terrific, so possibly I’m the only one complaining.) Austen’s comedy depends on distance: the narrator stands back from her characters to discreetly point out their silliness. Mysteries suck you in: they drop you into the middle of the action so you can undergo the ritual progress from disequilibrium to restoration of order. The author’s choice of narrative distance in any fiction determines how the reader perceives the action. James‘ mandate was to create a mystery, so she stays with a fairly naturalistic, involved-in-the-action position. You’d almost have to — but as a result, Death Comes to Pemberley loses the light touch of its antecedent.
And there’s another issue: we’re in 1803, among the British upper class, a group legendary for their restraint and stately behavior. James does a pretty good job mimicking the goings-on of the Longbourn/Pemberley set, but she’s stifled by the retro language. There’s a scene at the end of the book which should provide high drama, but James can’t use any of our modern tricks of pacing and vocabulary to speed up the action and it falls flat. Even more weirdly, the tale resides primarily in the consciousness of Mr. Darcy and his now-wife Elizabeth (formerly Elizabeth Bennet). And they turn out to be — vapid! Of course James can’t endow them with post-Freudian consciousness, but when you take away Austen’s arch observation, there’s very little individuality left to them. Strangely, it’s the bumptious near-caricature Lydia Bennet (now Wickham) who survives with something like a personality.
The plotting is probably the most successful part of the book. Again, the basic premise shackles the author: somebody has to die, and somebody has to be found responsible for the death. But in Jane Austen’s world we can’t call in Adam Dalgliesh. So on a dark, stormy night in the Pemberley woods, an army captain is mysteriously done to death and it’s George Wickham who is found kneeling at his side, lamenting that he has killed his best friend. Awkward, since Wickham was the irresistible rake in Pride and Prejudice. He and Darcy sort of … simmer at each other throughout the book. (Politely, with gritted teeth.) There’s considerable exposition about early 19th-century criminal procedure, and two trial scenes, narrated with some relish in the period details — but little suspense. Which for me, pretty much sums up the whole novel.