Death Comes to Pemberley starts slowly, with a far more detailed recap of the events that led up to Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage than must surely be necessary, for why would anyone read this without a knowledge of Pride and Prejudice? It takes about 50 pages to get into the story, with plenty of detail of everyday life at Pemberley and Elizabeth's preparations for a ball. As I read these sections, I suspected that I would be more interested in the ordinary affairs of the Darcys and Bingleys, and the staff of Pemberley, than in the story itself!
When I read Return to the Hundred Acre Woods, the official sequel to A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books, I was struck by the amount of period detail that the author had put in, probably in order to create a realistic sense of the time of the story, detail that was never needed in the original stories because they were written to be contemporary. This is the case here, too. P. D. James has clearly put in a huge amount of research, but sometimes the research stifles the storytelling. Still, I do love to know all about the workings of Pemberley and the expansion of the world of Jane Austen's novels.
The tone of the novel, as necessitated by the combination of the Austen Sequel with the Crime genre, is considerably darker than Jane Austen's original. Shadows creep around the edges of the idyllic lifestyle, and Pemberley is furnished with not one, but two suicides in its history. There is a "gritty realism" to James's Pemberley, and her take on the characters and their relationships. I felt uncomfortably aware of how Lydia and Wickham have never quite been forgiven for their elopement, and never would. It was not all doom and gloom however, and occasionally, James came out with some wonderful Austenian (is that a word?) wit:
"There are few activities so agreeable as spending a friend's money to your own satisfaction and his benefit."With most of the action set at Pemberley, we don't get to see much of the Bennets, but when we do meet Jane and Mr Bingley, they are instantly identifiable within a few words. Lydia, likewise, is just as she always has been - if not more so. We never get to see Mrs Bennet on the page, but her youngest daughter is growing daily more like her mother. I was also pleased to see a bit more of Georgiana Darcy, a character I liked but barely knew in the original novels. She is about twenty one by this point, and despite her shyness, the Darcy stubbornness is becoming apparent in her character. And although we don't get to see Mr Collins, or even read his letter to the Darcys after a murder took place in their grounds, the description of his epistle is priceless.
"He began by stating that he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful [...] He went on to prophesy a catalogue of disasters for the afflicted family ranging from the worst - Lady Catherine's displeasure and their permanent banishment from Rosings - descending to public ignominy, bankruptcy and death."Interestingly, it is Elizabeth and Darcy who I felt were least themselves. Their characters were consistent, but not strong, and I managed to sit through an entire Pemberley supper without registering the presence of the master of the house until he spoke - as if James hadn't known what to do with him until he was needed to move the plot onwards. The couple rarely even appear together in the same scene, and hardly interact, a disappointment considering that they are supposed to be the ultimate romantic couple.
And I've written this far without even mentioning the murder mystery. It is more of a "trial" mystery than a detective novel, with little on-scene investigation and lots of last-minute revelations. I was unsurprised by the killer's identity, as there was a pretty small pool of suspects, and I didn't believe James would dare to turn one of Jane Austen's characters into a killer.
All this might suggest that I didn't like Death Comes to Pemberley, but that's not true. It was never going to be what really happened next, but it was quite a respectable version of what could have happened. Once I'd got past the somewhat stodgy recap at the start of the book, I kept on promising myself "just one more chapter," or "just ten/twenty/fifty more pages" until I realised I had nearly finished, all in one evening. And although at least part of the ending was predictable, I found myself anxious on behalf of even the less sympathetic of Austen's characters. Death Comes to Pemberley was not a great work of literature - I suspect if you look long enough you'd find something better on fanfiction.net - but it was a fun, enjoyable page-turner, an easy read to help me through a reading slump.