Celebrated mystery novelist PD James’s new Jane Austen pastiche, Death Comes to Pemberley, is the first book I downloaded to the Kindle I got for Xmas that wasn’t either my own work or in the public domain. It’s only the latest of a big enough bevy of novels to be called a subgenre—some mysteries and some I’d call historical chick lit—featuring either Jane Austen herself or her characters, most often Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, their fictional lives extended through marriage and parenthood.
The novel started well enough that I began to make notes for a possible blog post. James’s meticulous use of language and majestic pace, so out of sync with most of today’s crime fiction, serve her well as she sets her scene in Austen’s universe. She replicates Austen’s lightly ironic tone.
“The town has an assembly room...but...the chief entertainment takes place in private houses where the boredom of dinner parties and whist tables, always with the same company, is relieved by gossip.”
When social events are threatened due to the war with France, it is finally concluded that “Paris would rejoice exceedingly and take new heart were that benighted city to learn that the Pemberley ball had been cancelled.”
Unlike many of the authors who have borrowed Austen and her characters, James avoids anachronism in both language and content, beyond a few delicate references to marital love and pregnancy, on which Austen would have remained silent or even more euphemistic. It could even be argued that the lack of onstage drama—for example, there is no confrontation between Wickham, who plays a major role, and either Darcy or Elizabeth—is justified because overt confrontation would be out of character for Austen.
Unfortunately, the promise of Austenian delights is not fulfilled, nor is the hope of a good mystery. I’ve already seen one online review that perpetrated more of a spoiler than I think fair. However, I must say that there is no puzzle and no detection, that certain characters are introduced only for the sake of unwarranted revelations at the end about their role in the crime, and that James is self-indulgent in slipping in her own critique of Pride and Prejudice.
When Darcy’s sister Georgiana has a suitor, Elizabeth reflects:
Surely they were in love, or perhaps on the verge of love, that enchanting period of mutual discovery, expectation, and hope. It was an enchantment she had never known. It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour....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?
James also drags in references to characters from Persuasion and Emma, who by coincidence are only two or three degrees of separation from the Darcys.
James commits almost every literary crime that new writers are cautioned against: endless backstory, telling rather than showing both character and action, lack of conflict and suspense, and avoidance of dramatic scenes or interaction between the characters in favor of tedious exposition and narrative musings. Yet within a month of its appearance, Death Comes to Pemberley had already been on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks and will no doubt remain there for some time to come. Like me, an awful lot of readers were seduced by the combined names of Jane Austen and P.D. James and will no doubt be equally disappointed. Or will they even notice?