Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James – A Review

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James (2011)I consider it more than a bit perplexing when an author begins their book with an apology. In this case, it is to author Jane Austen for using her characters. Since Death Comes to Pemberley is a sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is like apologizing for snow being cold. If you are going to write a sequel to a classic of world literature, it is, what it is. Don’t apologize for it. It really puts me off my reading game from the get go.

Okay, I got that off my chest, so now on to more pleasant topics – the fact that the venerable mystery writer P. D. James has taken up her pen inspired by my (and her) favorite author and whipped up a murder mystery for me to devour is delightful. What Janeite in their right mind is not salivating at the thought of an Austen sequel written by such an acclaimed and exalted author? Just the thought of Austen and mystery in one sentence pushes me into the giddy zone. To say that my “wishes and hopes might be fixed” in anticipation is an understatement.

It is six years since the happy day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters in marriage: Jane to Charles Bingley and Elizabeth to Fitzwilliam Darcy. Both sisters and their husbands are at Pemberley, the palatial country estate of the Darcys in Derbyshire, whose grandeur is only equal to the ten thousand a year that it generates for its previously haughty master and decidedly opinionated mistress. Elizabeth has settled in as chatelaine to a large estate and mother to two young sons. Life is orderly and good at Pemberley, as long as one stays out of the haunted woodland.

Darcy’s younger, and still unmarried, sister Georgiana is also in residence being courted by two beaux: her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, and the young, ambitious, but dishy attorney, Henry Alveston. All have gathered for Lady Anne’s ball, an annual event in honor of Mr. Darcy’s deceased mother’s birthday. Many county families will be in attendance. On the eve of the grand event Mrs. Reynolds the housekeeper and the staff are busy preparing for the large formal gathering while the family dine and later meet in the music room. It is a windy, moonlit night, but Colonel Fitzwilliam takes his leave for his nightly exercise, a ride along the river. Later, many have said their goodnights and departed when Darcy is surprised by the sight of a carriage careening at full speed down the woodland road to Pemberley. The coach abruptly arrives depositing a frantic Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth’s unruly younger sister on the doorstep. She is hysterical, shrieking, “Wickham’s dead. Denny has shot him!”

The Wickhams had been traveling to Pemberley with friend Captain Denny by carriage. Even though Mr. Wickham would never be admitted to Pemberley because of his past indiscretion with Georgiana, Lydia, uninvited, had still planned to crash the party. Wickham and Denny had quarreled while traveling through the woodland, departed from the carriage, and gun shots heard soon after. Off into the haunted woods go the search party of Darcy, Alveston and Col. Fitzwilliam to discover a body in the woodland that Lydia is certain is her husband.

And now the glade was before them. Passing slowly, almost in awe, between two of the slender trunks, they stood as if physically rooted, speechless with horror. Before them, it stark colours a brutal contrast to the muted light, was a tableau of death. No one spoke. They moved slowly forward as one, all three holding their lanterns high; their strong beams, outshining the gentle radiance of the moon, intensified the bright red of the officer’s tunic and the ghastly blood-smeared face and mad glaring eyes turned toward them. p. 65

A murder in the haunted woodland. The investigation begins. The body is removed to Pemberley. Mr. Darcy notifies the local magistrate, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, who arrives to conduct the inquiries. Darcy, Elizabeth, Jane and Bingley are all distraught by the shocking death. The staff is terrified that the curse of the Darcys continues in the haunted woodland. Lydia is hysterical. Lady Anne’s ball is canceled. The official inquest begins. Why did Colonel Fitzwilliam leave Pemberley to ride in terrible weather so late at night? What is the secret behind the Bidwell family who lives in the woodland cottage where Darcy’s great-grandfather committed suicide? Who, or what, is the shrouded figure who haunts the woodland? What is the motive for murder?

We are happily reunited with many of the characters from the beloved original novel and deposited at Pemberley, quite possibly the pinnacle of the Janeite world. Real comfort food for Austen fans. The first twenty page of the prologue recap the plot and details in Pride and Prejudice. Was this for the benefit of her mystery readers who have not read P&P? If so, the same effect could have been achieved by working it into the narrative in a more creative way. James continues building the mystery slowly by adding in elements of the haunted woodland, the curse, and the ghostly figures reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairytale. The plot ponders along with occasional bits of excitement from that evergreen drama queen, Lydia Wickham, nee Bennet, whose character she hits spot on. Another character who she develops interestingly is Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was the second son of an earl in Pride and Prejudice, and we all know that second sons must make their own way in the world. He chose the army. His life changes drastically, and his personality, when his brother dies and he becomes heir to a grand estate. He courts Georgiana, but don’t look for much romance in this novel. It is a mystery and her romantic triangle is second fiddle to the murder investigation. Darcy and Elizabeth are, well, an old married couple and not as interesting as the proud and prejudiced characters that Jane Austen presented. I missed their witty banter.

For Austen fans this will be an enjoyable (if somewhat ponderous) read if you overlook some of the annoying errors in continuity, and for mystery enthusiasts, James does spin a clever tale with a surprise ending that comes out of nowhere. Combined, the Austen and mystery elements do not play out to their potential. None-the-less, it is still an interesting read that has wrangled its way up the bestseller lists. That is an incredible achievement and great proof that the Austen brand continues to grow.

3.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0307959850

© 2007 – 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

30 thoughts on “Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James – A Review

    • Agreed, Marsha! We live in a rare world here in the ‘Austenlands’ – or in the land of sequels or fan fiction for any of the beloved classic authors. But in the publishing world where P.D. James has spent her career, it’s probably thought a discourtesy among colleagues & display of disrespect –if not matter for legal action for one author to take hold of another’s characters and involve them in further adventures.

      While centuries make legal action moot, I was touched that an author of James’ status, at this late point in her career, would do Jane the courtesy of apologizing for the use of her characters without her leave. It seemed so “old school” and fitting for P.D. James, somehow. I thought Jane would smile.

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      • Cally,

        I know what you’re saying – it’s a very sensible stance – and I actually work in publishing, but I don’t agree with copyright conventions very much, and not because of what I write. Before such stern copyright laws, mostly the result of Disney’s lobbying to make sure Mickey Mouse never falls out of copyright, writers took from each other all the time and it was a near-collaborate process. Novelist Maurice LeBlanc asked the living Arthur Conan Doyle for permission to use the character of Sherlock Holmes in one of his French books, and when Doyle declined, law demanded only that LeBlanc change the name to “Herlock Sholmes.” And so we have “Arsene Lupin vs. Herlock Sholmes” and it’s still read today, which it probably wouldn’t be if a more famous character than Arsene Lupin wasn’t involved. Going back further, we wouldn’t have most of Shakespeare if he wasn’t allowed to crib from other people’s work with some name changes. Literature is more fluid and less belonging to the author than people think. It really shuts down the creative process to say, “Since I’ve written this, no one can ever use this, even if they come up with it on their own.”

        Also, I don’t have to apologize to dead people because they are dead. I went to Winchester and checked (I really did) and Jane Austen remains dead. Her characters are in a public space and she is not. I’m not being polite by ignoring that reality.

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  1. A very good review! I agree that the summary of P&P in the beginning was boring and I missed Austen’s witty dialogue between characters. I thought James’ mystery was a little plodding and not as clever as some of her other detective books. The continuity errors were something I had a hard time overlooking and it often drew me out of the story. I’m still glad that I read it, though.

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  2. I was disappointed by the book, both as an Austen continuation and as a mystery.

    I felt that the names and location had been taken from Austen but that the characters simply were not the charaters written by Austen, even allowing for changes in the time elasped since Pride & Prejudice. Lydia was the only character who was at all like the character of that name in Pride & Prejudice.

    I read a lot of mysteries and found this one not at all challenging. For example, I guessed the “weapon” (and therefore cause of death) as soon as it was described. I also identified the killer, and guessed the reason for the attack (although I didn’t guess the twist as to the identity of the victim). But I don’t congratualte myself on these guesses – I deplore the ease with which a reader can see through the plot.

    This review refers to “annoying errors in continuity”; I found these astonishing especially given the calibre and experience of the author. Also, they should have been picked up in the editing stage long before the book was published.

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  3. I can’t decide whether to read this book or not. I think it probably will annoy me, but I do like a good mystery. The errors in continuity are surprising–I wonder whether James’s editor feels awkward about editing an icon and so sluffed off a bit.

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  4. Laurel Ann: Your own review and the fact that I consider you a trustworthy guide on what to read and what to avoid has finally put me off of this sequel. Rest assured that most other sites reviewing this work have more than corroborated your own opinion here. Even an author with as lofty a reputation as the legendary P D James needs an occasional dressing-down for a less-than-stellar offering. My thanks to all others who have given this work an honest and critical review because you have rendered a “valuable public service.”

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  5. I received a signed “true first,” meaning the original British edition hardcover, of this book from a beloved mystery bookseller friend for Christmas. I’ve started it, and have refrained from all criticism because I write Austen-inspired mysteries myself, and cannot possibly be unbiased. Dame P.D. is in her early nineties; how wonderful if any of us maintain “continuity” at that age!

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  6. I’m anxious to see what Ms. James has written and have this book in my to-be-read stack. Like anything else, I think it’s hard to continue on a theme someone else has started. She is such a talented and prolific writer and I always enjoy her characters.

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  7. DEAR READERS: PLEASE DISREGARD MY PREVIOUS COMMENT! I just read it again and groaned because instead of politely declining to comment I had to blather on and blow smoke about a book that I haven’t even read! Who am I to disparage somebody who is over 90 years old with the presence of mind to write a world’s best seller? Please accept my humble apologies and ignore my inappropriate bandstanding. “Better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and leave no doubt!” (I feel better now)

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  8. I think because of who the author is and her incredible body of work, there has been a lot of hype that might be hard to live up to especially to the most particular eye of a Janeite. I daresay your review is spot on. “…James continues to build mystery slowly…” Indeed. At a snails pace. But about 3/4 of the way, she pulls a rabbit out of a hat, and the mystery gets moving. I liked it despite little details that still bug me (3weeks after reading it) like Darcy’s mother dying AFTER his father! AND I am thrilled to own a hardback British 1st edition. Meh, it’s a good example of JAFF (fanfiction.) Good not great.

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  9. I have only just started the book last night so it has been interesting to see the comments of others who have finished it. I will say this though: while the Pride and Prejudice summary in the beginning may be less than captivating to those of us who are so familiar with it, I do think that it was necessary in order to acquaint readers who may never have read it (and yes, they ARE out there!). I think it was easier to put the basic plot of P&P out there like that instead of including it as exposition and backstory later on. Some may disagree of course but I had no problems with it being set up that way.

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  10. This is sitting next to my bed in my TBR pile. I saved it purposely for the new year. I hope I can find somethings in it that I can enjoy. A friend of mine from work is enjoying it tremendously.

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  11. Please let me clarify that this is a worthy addition to any Austenesque library. I do not regret reading it. There were many elements that I enjoyed and others that I was disappointed in. I think that my expectations were unrealistic given the renown of the author and her admiration for Austen. I just might be her most fastidious reader.

    Please don’t let my reaction put you off. I am only one opinion. It should stir your curiosity to see if your reaction is the same.

    Cheers, LA

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    • Never apologize, LA, for an honest review. I think you’re absolutely correct in what you say–even your distaste for the author’s disclaimer to Jane at the beginning! It struck me, amusingly, as though P.D. thought nobody’d ever presumed to write a continuation of P&P before–that she was the first to think of such a thing. I doubt the book would have garnered one fifth the attention it has, if she’d written it under a different name…

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  12. I like seeing what everyone else thinks and I look forward to reading this book. Thank you for the spoiler-free review! I like the idea of a P&P murder mystery and cannot wait to read it for myself.

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  13. My Bellingham paper this a.m. reports Pacific Northwest Indie Bestseller List, from AmericanBooksellersAssoc and PacificNorthwestBooksellersAssoc,have DCtP at #1 with StephenKing’s 11/22/63 at #4 and Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked… at #10. So obviously to me anyway, this type of discussion is good for sales. I’ll be most interested to see where the book lands next week.

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  14. Pingback: Thanking Jane Austen | Austen Authors

  15. How different we all are. I thought the Author’s Note to Jane A. at the beginning was perfect, and the first section reviewing P&P was necessary and enjoyable.
    Something tells me that my age being close to PD James will explain this reaction to you younger readers who found it slow moving or unnecessary.
    The continuity jolts (I’m only in the middle of the book) hasn’t yet spoiled my pleasure in the least. At first I thought it intentional (this is after all PD James) but either way it doesn’t seem important. I love this book! Thank you Laurel for the review, and glad for your additional comment of 1/4/12

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  16. As a Jane Austen and P D James fan,having read all their books, repeatedly, I am very disappointed.
    The plot is badly drawn, new characters jumping out of the pages to appear momentarily, only to be discarded with no explanation of their involvement, and given the most improbable names – Mickledore, Cornbinder, Clitheroe, Makepeace, Oliphant; Jane Austen gave her characters the names – Bennet, Collins, Gardiner. P and P has been turned into a comic!
    There is repetition, poor linking of themes, no character development old or new, and the solution of the murder so totally ‘out of left field’ it is ridiculous.
    I do not beleive that P D James wrote this, and whoever edited it should be shot.

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  17. Appalling. I was determined not to be an Austen snob about this book, so it’s not that I object to any author sequelling Jane’s masterpieces, particularly one so celebrated. It was the dreadful lack of subtlety in the language, the clunking explanation of every reference to the period or to the original books, the too obvious dropping of clues into the narrative. Not to mention the sympathetic Alveston having very modern and PC ideas about women’s rights while the less attractive figure of Colonel Fitzwilliam having equally unattractive opinions.

    I’ve never read a PD James before, and this will be the last, if this is representative of the rest of her work.

    The point at which I closest to throwing it across the room (against some pretty stiff competition):

    “What he probably needed was to visit the water closet, that new fangled apparatus you have had installed here which, I understand, has caused much ribald interest in the neighbourhood…” Oh please.

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  18. Oh yes, and I forgot the inclusion of a reference to Anne Elliott near the end. Maybe someone can explain to me why I was so infuriated by this.

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  19. This book is a huge disappointment. It neither delivers as a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, nor as a mystery novel itself. There is barely any mystery involved, and no effort on the part of the one dimensional characters to solve what little mystery there is. A detective was introduced, and promptly forgotten about, never to return to the story. Why bother to build up Selwyn or give him such long, rambling backstory when he scarcely played a part in the novel?

    The author’s incredibly vain and thinly veiled name dropping of Harriet Smith, and Anne Elliot was repugnant to me, and a pretty shameless ploy to squeeze some more fame out of Jane Austen’s own works. But let’s face facts, that’s all this book really was.

    I found ALL of the characters appearing from of Pride and Prejudice to be so far off the mark in their speech and personalities, it seemed to me like reading a teenager’s work of fanfiction. Did she not read Pride and Prejudice? The first chapter of James’ book recounts the tale of the original so blatantly incorrectly, I thought it was a joke.

    Elizabeth Bennet was the exact opposite of mercenary in her choice of Darcy. And by this I mean, she was not after his money. The author of this piece of atrocity claims that Elizabeth had pursued him the entire time, and only fell in love with him in the end. She couldn’t be more wrong, and anyone who’d bothered to read the original would know that. Elizabeth pursued Wickham, and believed the slander he directed at Darcy. In the ‘sequel’, P.D. James even frequently alludes to Elizabeth’s folly in fancying Wickham several times, yet apparently this contradiction flies right over her head. What an ill-thought out book.

    To me the story seemed short, and contrived. It spent too much time babbling about some made up backstory which didn’t seem to mesh well with the characters or the original story at all. It meandered on at length about descriptions of the weather, and the vapid thoughts of characters greatly abused by James’ pen. Elizabeth Bennet, one of the most popular of Jane Austen’s characters, was completely voiceless and self-effacing, and showed none of the verve and wit which made Pride and Prejudice so interesting! Much of the dialogue in James’ novel is embarrassingly juvenile. It plays at writing in the style of the original, but falls shamefully short. The characters lack any sort of real emotion, or genuine reaction at the events that befall them, and their generic speech makes it hard to form any sort of mental image of what the characters are like or how they’re acting at any given time.

    I could go on forever about how disappointing this piece of literary trash is, but I’m sure I’ll hit the text limit. It’s an embarrassment, and I think Austen would be offended by the notion of someone so ill-equipped to handle her characters making a mockery of her work. Better to read Pride and Prejudice over and stop at that. This isn’t worth your time, and certainly not your money.

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  21. I love all adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, even adaptations that are a little quirky and off. I especially love thrillers and mysteries so this book seems intriguing to me. I think I will definitely read it. Sometimes the books that the majority of readers give mixed reviews on are my favorite.

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  22. I never believed that someone could render the most interesting and appealing heoine in English literature neither interesting nor appealing, but James has managed to do so. Insufferable!

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  23. Did I really misspell “heroine”? Inexcusable! Anyway, I will take the floor again for a moment to say that the DCTP Elizabeth comes across as mopish and intimidated, characteristics so far removed from the the P&P Lizzy as to be almost pathetic. Despite facing the most trying of personal losses and humiliations Jane Austen’s Elizabeth always kept her head up and met each misfortune with spirit and determination. That is the Elizabeth with whom I am familiar, not this poor distracted imitation.

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  24. Have to say that I greatly enjoyed reading the book. I have not read Jane Austen but have watched the series with Colin Firth many times. The book was chosen as this month’s choice for our library bookclub. Also, it’s quite an achievement for any 90 year old to write a book. Perhaps it’s best not to have read Austen, judging from several of the comments here, if one is to have any hope of enjoying this book.

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