Death Comes to Pemberley
Following the current fashion for new fictions derived from the works of Jane Austen, P.D. James has combined her love of Miss Austen’s writing with her own consummate skill as a teller of murder stories to bring us Death Comes to Pemberley.
It is 1803, and the Darcys and the Bingleys have been happily married for six years. They are now neighbours in Derbyshire, and the book opens with the gathering of family and friends at Pemberley for a ball. In an opening scene worthy of Wilkie Collins, a recklessly driven chaise arrives at Pemberley in the middle of a storm. Out tumbles Lydia Wickham, saying her husband has been murdered in the woods.
From this point on, James is on familiar ground, as the magistrates and constables and the sinister doctor with an interest in experimenting on dead bodies congregate to examine Lydia’s claim and the body which inevitably turns up. She lays trails involving Darcy family history and the household servants but, most cleverly, uses the various loose ends left by Jane Austen at the end of Pride and Prejudice to conjure a web of motives linking the characters from that book.
I enjoyed reading Death Comes to Pemberley. It is an accomplished whodunit contrived by one of the great mistresses of the genre, and a pitch-perfect pastiche of Austen, but it is also slightly uncomfortable to witness the subjection of Austen’s characters to modern psychological analysis and forensic examination. I was left with a nagging suspicion that, when I next return to Pride and Prejudice, I shall know more about these people than I ought. I shall feel as if I have been prying where I should not.