Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Death Comes to Pemberley: A Review

P.D. James's latest novel is a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (I know, I know, don't leave yet).  James gives Austen's creation the mystery-novel treatment, in which Wickham involves the Darcy's in a murder investigation by being found in the woods at Pemberley with a dead body.  Despite that intriguing premise, the novel gets off to a slow start; she begins with a somewhat amusing summary of Pride and Prejudice, clearly meant for people who had never read it, but a bit tedious for those who have.  She then directs us to Pemberley, six years after Elizabeth and Darcy's wedding, where preparations for a ball are underway.

Most strikingly: Elizabeth has changed.  Throughout the novel, she is constantly described as anxious, apprehensive, exhausted.  She is given to vague, but grim forebodings.  James has done little to capture the witty and practical heroine of Austen's novel (though, likely, Elizabeth Bennett cannot truly be reproduced to the exacting standards of Austen's readers, so why try?).  James's Mrs. Darcy seems to serve as an emotional conductor, relaying the appropriate sensations to the reader to create the right mysterious atmosphere.  Darcy fares better and is more complex, a mixture of intelligence, compassion, and propriety.

The mystery itself is suitably interesting, but we are subjected to numerous reiterations of the facts--we read exactly the same story, in nearly the same words repeated from the first encounter with the Wickhams, the interviews with the witnesses, repeated to the magistrate, at the inquest, at the trial.  The redundancy seems fairly inexplicable, as it really adds nothing to the plot or our understanding of it.  A final gripe: inelegant information dumps.  We 21st century readers can't figure out that the legal system is different in the 19th century, so we have long speeches where one character relates text-book style information to another character.  This, of course, can only be for our benefit, and it seems that it could have been more gracefully integrated.  Honestly, I would prefer an editorial footnote to these little lectures that are fooling no one.

As a whole, though, the book is a good read, a page-turner that I flew through pretty quickly.  The dialogue (even some free indirect discourse) is pretty convincing, and there are a few, fun mentions of characters from Emma and Persuasion.  A light read, though lacking many humorous touches--it seems there is a bit lost in transforming a comedy of manners into a mystery.  Recommended for Austen fans with the understanding that this is not a purist's sequel, and for mystery fans looking for a historical setting with a minimum of grit and gore.

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