Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James: A review

What a delicious read! This book combines two of my favorites: Jane Austen and P.D. James. James writes here in the style of Austen. 

She has taken up the story of two of the most-loved characters from Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, now Mr. and Mrs Darcy of Pemberley. We meet them six years after their wedding, now at home with their two sons. Elizabeth has adjusted to the role of mistress of Pemberley and is busily planning the Lady Anne ball held each October in honor of her husband's late mother. The ball is to take place on the morrow when suddenly all the best-laid plans are torn asunder by a violent death which occurs in a woodland on the Pemberley estate. 

Most distressingly, the Darcys first learn of the death when a horse-drawn conveyance comes barreling up to the house and a hysterically screaming woman emerges from it. The woman turns out to be Elizabeth's ditzy youngest sister, Lydia, who is screaming that "Wickham is dead!" 

As it turns out Wickham is not dead but his friend is. Denny has been killed by a violent blow to the head and since Wickham is found with the body and is covered in blood, and since he says, "I've killed my only friend! It's my fault!", he is charged with murder and must stand trial. 

In the late 18th/early 19th centuries, having a relative, even a relative by marriage, stand trial for murder is a scandal from which a family might never recover. But despite all the odious Wickham has done to cause them pain, Elizabeth and Darcy cannot really believe him guilty of murder and they set out to help in any way they can. 

The mystery that is woven here by James is not up to her usual standards. The complications and convolutions of the plot are caused mostly by the hidebound social conventions of the era, the conventions about which Austen wrote with such humor and empathy. James lives in a vastly different time, two centuries later and she finds little humor in the conventions that keep women firmly under the thumbs of their male "protectors" but she still manages to convey the empathy for those who are bound by those conventions. She does a good job of channeling Jane and brings off one of the more successful Austen pastiches that I have read.

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