Warning: This review may contain plot spoilers, although I’ve done my best to avoid them.
After being on a long wait list, I finally read P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley this week. I really love Pride & Prejudice, so a murder mystery using Austen’s characters seemed like a fun idea. I’ve read most of the previous mysteries by P.D. James, and I admire her work. I didn’t read any book reviews in advance, but I did glance at the readers’ ratings at Amazon. They were pretty evenly divided across the range from “love it” to “hate it.” I’m afraid I have to agree with the folks that gave it two stars out of five. I forced myself to finish the novel because I wanted to find out whodunit, but it was a trial.
My problems with Death Comes To Pemberley are directly related to what I love about Pride & Prejudice. I so enjoy the intelligent conversations between the characters, especially Darcy and Elizabeth. I don’t know if people ever really spoke like that, but it’s a lost art. P.D. James is not able to re-create anything close. Most of the conversations in her novel are dull, describing actions instead of being real dialogue. Here’s what Darcy has to say to Elizabeth on page 150: “Lady Catherine, as expected, has passed on the news to Mr. Collins and Charlotte and has enclosed their letter with her own. I cannot suppose that they will give you pleasure. I shall be in the business room with John Wooller but hope to see you at luncheon before I set out for Lambton.” Worse, Elizabeth and Darcy are rarely together, so they have very little connection with each other. Elizabeth is the perfect wife, going about her wifely duties and taking morning visits to the nursery, but apparently a married woman can no longer take part in anything interesting. Because she’s so darn respectable, Elizabeth cannot attend the inquest or the murder trial. She’s not even in the room when “all is revealed.” Here is a book by a woman based on another woman’s book featuring some of the best female characters in literature, and all the women are relegated to the background. Perhaps James is more comfortable writing about male characters like Darcy, Wickham, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, but I miss the ladies.
The central mystery isn’t all that engaging, and the description given on the book jacket is deceptive. Almost every character has a solid alibi, so there are very few suspects. No one character takes on the role of “sleuth” to solve the murder. By the time the same characters have given the same testimony to the magistrate, the coroner, and the trial lawyers, I just wanted it to be over. There are some contradictions in the details, which should have been caught by the editor. On page 68, it’s said about the murder victim, “He’s not a heavy man.” Later, on page 101, it reads “[The victim] was a heavy man.” A general editing error appears on page 130: “It was consider that either Colonel the Viscount Hartlep or any member of the Pemberley household could have had any part in [the victim’s] death.” Huh?
I’m going to finish by simply letting the book speak for itself. This is one of the longer speeches in the novel, given by the Pemberley housekeeper to Elizabeth on page 70:
“I will sit with Mrs. Wickham until Dr. McFee arrives, madam. I expect he will give her something to calm her and make her sleep. I suggest that you and Mrs. Bingley go back to the music room to wait; you will be comfortable there and the fire has been made up. Stoughton will stay at the door and keep watch, and he will let you and Mrs. Bingley know as soon as the chaise comes into sight. And if Mr. Wickham and Captain Denny are discovered on the road, there will be room in the chaise for the whole party, although it will not perhaps be the most comfortable of journeys. I expect the gentlemen will need something hot to eat when they do return, but I doubt, madam, whether Mr. Wickham and Captain Denny will wish to stay for refreshments. Once Mr. Wickham knows that his wife is safe, he and his friend will surely want to continue their journey. I think Pratt said that they were on their way to the King’s Arms at Lambton.”