‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ review

Death Comes to Pemberley

By: P.D. James


Vintage Canada 2011

A historical mystery review

In this P.D. James’s work, the shades of Pemberley ARE polluted…by murder!  The question is, will it be further soiled by having that notorious brother-in-law, George Wickham, the wild son of its late steward be ignominiously hanged for the crime?

Death Comes to Pemberley has some good material, but fails to connect enough to bring it home.  The central characters are immediately cleared of any wrongdoing, so the mystery centers on only those players who we never have a chance to connect with.  Hence, there’s not really much chance of readers getting involved with the mystery, no real suspense, tension, or satisfying curiosity.  The writing style does evoke the Austen novels, with several pleasing quote references.  However, many details are unconvincingly shoehorned into dialogue.  James could have better included this context as straight exposition, but felt compelled to have her characters say them, even when it’s completely out of character.  I don’t care how mellowed Darcy is by Lizzie, he’s not going around elaborating on social gossip he doesn’t care for instead of directly answering questions.  The events of Pride and Prejudice are well explained and used for access to the characters.  There are several points where James did convince me that I was inside protagonist Darcy’s head, which was wonderful.  On the other hand, Lizzie’s the heroine everyone wants more of and this book avoids doing anything with her.  Lizzie here is a key to discovering the workings of Pemberley, rather than a main character in her own right.  She’s utterly lacking in humor or even the dramatic flair she showed when Lydia eloped.  Moreover, there’s no enjoyable character growth.  Darcy’s realizations fall short, Lizzie has none, and there are no fleshed out scenes with them together or with their children to appreciate even changes in relationship dynamics.  Only those characters distanced to the readers can claim even the possibility of character change, which again is difficult to care about from afar.

James’s description of the intricacies of Pemberley is interesting.  The best things in this book are the slight extensions of Austen’s original work, such as the fate of Mary Bennet and the evolved relations between Lizzie and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  The way James contrives to bring in plausible connections with characters from other Austen novels is a close second.  However, a mystery without suspense, a Pemberley without a strong Lizzie, and an Austen attempt without humor are each cause enough for a failed novel.  Death Comes to Pemberley brought all three.

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