P.D. James is one of the great mystery writers. Her books are psychologically dark and dense, humanely subtle and complex. Long before I started reviewing and writing books, she was the author I had to read each time she published a new book.
Her latest takes a decidedly different direction. Instead of contemporary England, she has set this one at Pemberley estate in 1803, six years after Miss Elizabeth Bennet has married Darcy. That is, P.D. James takes the prose of Jane Austen as her setting.
P.D. James has an excellent ear. When she writes in Austen’s mode, she does so with incredible exactitude. The tone and diction sound as if lifted from the pages of Pride and Prejudice. While I fully recognize the torture I inflicted on teenage boys by requiring them to read Pride and Prejudice when I taught high school English, some of us in the world adore Austen. There is something of a cottage industry of imitators of Austen these days. I’ve avoided most of them for one reason or another, mostly time shortage. But when a master like P.D. James joined the cause, I bit. She didn’t disappoint me.
James goes beyond skillful imitation (which would be challenging enough in and of itself), but the hybrid she creates feels at times like strange bedfellows. Even P.D. James admits in her author’s note that death and murder are not the stuff of Austen. James’s customary darkness never feels to me quite at home with the light if cynical tone that Austen strikes even in her most tragic moments. A Picasso set next to a Vermeer are both still delightful to examine, and the juxtaposition can actually illuminate both. Reading Death Comes to Pemberley was a bit like that, two masters at work, but on separate projects that somehow got jumbled together at the publishers. One minute James has you lost in Austen’s language and worldview. The next she’s bent over a bloody corpse or elaborating on police procedures at the opening of the 19th century—not Austen-like at all. One other smaller note: Of such elaborations on various background topics, there were perhaps too many and they were not organically integrated into the flow of the tale. Austen never needs to go into such exegesis, but we understand her world without difficulty. I think James could have trusted us to do without some of this information.
I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it if you happen to love both P.D. James and Austen, but be aware of the disjuncture you may sometimes languish in. Watching a master at work is engaging, especially when she tries something audacious and remarkable. It doesn’t have to be completely successful to be worth the attempt.