Death Comes to Pemberley

If you are a venerable British crime writer with numerous award-winning novels under your belt and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) after your name, what do you do next? Apparently, if you are P. D. James, you take on Jane Austen. This makes sense, in a way. James is a shrewd observer and many of her novels are keen depictions of a rarified, insular tier of English life. Yet Death Comes to Pemberley seems an odd choice, as James concedes. “I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen,” she writes in her author’s note, “for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation…” The apology falls short, but we’ll get to that.

A dutiful prologue introduces the characters from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and advances their lives to the year 1803, when James’s murder mystery opens. “It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters,” James begins, echoing Austen’s famous first sentence. In stately — if plodding prose — James brings us up to date. Elizabeth, her Mr. Darcy, their two handsome sons, and a battalion of servants live a charmed life at Pemberley. Jane and her Mr. Bingley are equally happy at Longbourn while the insufferable Lydia and her bounder husband, Mr. Wickham, rattle around in reduced circumstances.

To these Austen holdovers James adds sundry yokels and yeomen, a ruined maiden, and some stout representatives of the law. There is a mechanically predictable romance between Darcy’s sister and an earnest young lawyer. And there is, early on, a murder.

On the eve of the Pemberley ball (to which the reprobate Wickhams are not invited), a distraught Lydia arrives in a careening coach, screaming that Wickham has been shot and killed by a friend in the adjacent woodland. It quickly transpires, however, that the friend is dead and that Wickham appears to have killed him. Darcy rushes to the scene and, contemplating the corpse, he senses its left eye “fixed on him, not with the blankness of death, but holding in its sticky gaze a lifetime of reproach.”

That “sticky gaze” is vintage P. D. James, and with it we hope that she has hit her stride. But the plot, after a halfhearted canter, returns to a monotonous trot. Noble Darcy rustles up the local magistrate and sets the legal gears moving while saintly Elizabeth juggles correspondence, housekeeping, and servant management. She also visits sickly tenants and frets over her husband. Murder aside, everything is as it should be. Elizabeth wakes up to “soft distant noises like the scratching of mice, which meant that the housemaids were already busy.” Should she encounter them, “they would smile and flatten themselves against the wall as she passed.” Similarly, when Darcy appears at the inquest there is “much touching of forelocks” by the peasantry.  

The murder trial, complete with a gallows-eve revelation, is worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the banter is a poor impersonation of Noël Coward impersonating Oscar Wilde. “I have never approved of protracted dying,” a titled booby declares, “It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.” One can imagine Miss Austen wincing at James’s mimicry and stifling a yawn at her plot.