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. (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 out of 5 Stars
Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
Cover image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday © 2011; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2011, Austenprose.com