Death Comes to Pemberley is a P.D. James tour de force—a Jane Austen novel with a murder mystery at its heart. James is the grand dame of the British murder mystery and an Austen enthusiast. She has captured the world of Pride and Prejudice in characters, convention and idiom—so you almost feel as if you are reading a long-lost manuscript in which Austen experimented with the mystery genre. Murder might not be Austen’s cup of tea but James seems to have delighted in the dynamics of great English estates and social protocols on the cusp of the nineteenth century.
On the eve of the annual Lady Anne’s Ball, as Pemberley is in a frenzy of preparation, Elizabeth manages the bustle with practiced aplomb as she worries about the suitors for Georgiana’s hand. Mr. Darcy’s little sister is grown up now—Darcy and Elizabeth have two treasured sons and most of the Bennet sisters are married. An army officer and a solicitor, both possessed of appropriate fortunes, are vying for Georgiana and Elizabeth considers how to broach the subject with Darcy and which choice will make Georgiana happiest.
But such concerns are driven nearly out of mind when a coach with an hysterical Lydia–the bad-girl Bennet sister–arrives in the middle of the night. She is screaming about murder in the dark woods abutting Pemberley and a search party is assembled, the doctor is called in to see to Lydia and the men in the house set out to discover what happened. Murder most foul, of course, and Wickham, Lydia’s ne-er-do-well husband, is discovered, inebriated and blood-covered, wailing over the corpse.
This is a complicated predicament—the social implications may be as damaging as the crime—and life is upended in the aftermath of the event. Is the family of servants living in an old house in the woodland near to the scene of the murder involved? Can Darcy prevent a distressing incident from Georgiana’s past from surfacing as part of the murder investigation? Will there be the scandal and calamity of a hanging in the family if Wickham is found guilty? Why is there no evidence of another presence in the woods that night–or any apparent intention behind the crime?
Motive is key to the solution in this puzzle. Without it you can suspect a vague pattern of guilt and opportunity but never sort it out or attach names to any of the victims—and there are more victims than the single dead body might indicate. James doesn’t shirk character development—the feuds and venom of the times are delicious but they pale in the presence of social graces and higher virtues—alas. Enmity in Austen is tempered by good manners and that remains a hallmark of Pemberley and its inhabitants—the human heart is examined and its rancors reduced sensibly.
Death Comes to Pemberley is interesting and a fun read. It’s satisfying to revisit Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy to see how their life together unfolds. The novel feels true to Austen, even if she would never have stooped so low as to subject her creations to the rigors of a detective story. There are some redeeming developments in the end that spell out a less chaotic future for the residents of Pemberley as they age into the mists of their fictional, sequel-free lives. James could probably keep this going with more homicidal episodes on the estate but I might vote for the return of Adam Dalgliesh, professional detective, over Fitzwilliam Darcy, landed investigator. A literary, no-nonsense gumshoe on the trail of a killer is more entertaining fare than the courteous lord of the manor, who has too many of his edges softened by maturity and a happy marriage to project his old, brusque and roguish appeal.
Death Comes to Pemberley P.D. James | Alfred A. Knopf 2011