Jane would have done it better
When word came out last fall that acclaimed British crime novelist P. D. James was set to release a crime novel featuring Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, I reacted with equal parts hope and trepidation. The prospect of resurrecting Jane Austen’s most beloved couple for sequels or other genre forays has attracted many authors, but few efforts have stood out as memorable. Would one of Britain’s premier writers, an author who cites Austen as one of the key influences on her work, have any better luck?
Death Comes to Pemberley picks up a few years after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy and Elizabeth are securely settled in their estate in Derbyshire, far from Elizabeth’s trying family and insulated from Darcy’s haunting memories of the near-ruin of his sister Georgiana. On the eve of the autumn ball, the past makes an unwelcome visit when Lydia Wickham arrives at Pemberley’s door, screaming that her husband Wickham is dead before falling into a picturesque faint. Darcy duly investigates, and discovers a bloody body in the nearby woodland. He comes to sudden realization that in spite of its seeming serenity and Darcy’s efforts to buy silence, Pemberley and its inhabitants are far from free of the ghosts of the past.
I can’t really give more than that as a synopsis; suffice it to say that Death Comes to Pemberley centers on many of the more minor characters from Austen’s novel. And that is only part of the problem. The appeal of Pride and Prejudice lies for most readers in the play between Darcy and Elizabeth, the sparkle of Austen’s wit and her shrewd perspective on British society. It might not be fair to expect levity in a crime novel, but Death Comes to Pemberley never captured my imagination. Darcy and Elizabeth spend almost the entire novel apart, the contrived mystery centers on characters that are neither likeable nor particularly memorable. Furthermore, James seems to make the assumption that her readers have read Pride and Prejudice, but then dwells on minutiae with which Austen’s readers would be familiar, further bogging a plot that struggles to spark interest in the first place.
I really wanted to like Death Comes to Pemberley. But in cases where an author writes in direct homage to another, the risk is that service to one author’s style results in diluting the other. It is unfair to hold James up to Austen’s standards, but this effort is subpar for the otherwise bankable James. In her opening note to the novel, James offers her apologies to Austen’s shade, reflecting that had Austen ‘wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.’ I agree. In the case of Death Comes to Pemberley, both Austen fans and James fans will likely go away disappointed.