Sunday, December 18, 2011

Death Comes to Pemberley: a review

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James
Hardcover: 291 pages; also available as an ebook
Publisher: Knopf

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a sequel to one of the most well known and well-loved novels of the English language. Pride and Prejudice probably has more TV and movie adaptions than any novel except perhaps Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (I'm talking through my hat here. I haven't actually counted). In written form, P&P also has numerous sequels, prequels, alternate tellings, and mash-ups.

As you might infer from the title, Death Comes to Pemberley is a murder mystery. From reading the blurb on Amazon, I thought it was Mr. Wickham who was murdered, but in fact he is more suspect than victim. I was disappointed, as I had thought he would get his just deserts. Well, he does suffer, but not nearly enough for me. And when it comes to murder mysteries, P.D. James knows her stuff.  I thought I had caught on to the true motive, but I was a bit off.

It turns out Baroness James also does a pretty good job with early 19th century English. That, of course, is the true test for the writer. Austen wrote P&P as a contemporary novel, but since she died in 1817, that gives you a sense of how far back in time James had to look. On the whole, DCtP does very well at keeping the reader in the early 19th century, with narrative like this:
The entertainment and seasonal diversions of country living are neither as numerous nor enticing as to make the social obligations of a great house a matter of indifference to those neighbours qualified to benefit from them . . .

A couple of times, I thought she slipped just a tad, as when Darcy says he needs to "make sure Bingley is fully in the picture. . ." and when a magistrate says, "The constables will need blankets, and some food and drink to see them through—cold meats, bread, the usual.” The phrases make sure, fully in the picture and the usual struck me as too modern for the time. Mind you, I don't know that they are, but they sound wrong to me.

On the other hand, this passage, where Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) is recalling that phase of her husband's courtship where she abruptly changes her mind about him impressed me as being on target and rather clever:
If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?
She even worked in the title of the original novel! There were several places where it was almost as if she were channeling Austen, as when she describes Mr. Collins' letter to Elizabeth:
He began by stating that he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful.
It's apparent, too, that James has done her research about the times. At one point, in order not to disturb Darcy's sleep, the servants wrapped chunks of coal in paper before putting them in the fire, so that they would burn with less noise. I have read a fair amount of historical fiction, but I had never heard that,

When the story begins, it's about six years after the Darcys' and the Bingleys' marriages, and both Elizabeth and Jane have children. I was pleased that James didn't feel compelled to tinker with circumstances too much. She did marry off Mary Bennett, who is little seen in this novel, but appears to be happy as a clergyman's wife.  The only unmarried Bennett sister still at home (and happy to be there, in full possession of her parents' time and attention) is Kitty.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that I knew the original novel well enough not to need the retelling of the P&P backstory that James felt compelled to include. I thought it slowed things down too much, and considering the book was written in the style of the 19th century, that made it darned slow in places. On the other hand, I can see why James didn't want to exclude from her audience people who either never read the book, or haven't read it recently.  I also agree with a few commenters I saw on Amazon who complained the ending felt a little rushed. It did seem to me James might have spent a bit more "ink" in the ending.

If I were giving out stars, I would say 4 out of 5. An excellent job on copying a master, and an enjoyable mystery, too.

Addendum for Kindle owners: I read (naturally) the Kindle version. The formatting was excellent.

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