Much Prejudice, Little Pride, A review of P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley”

28 Feb

I have to admit, I am officially of two minds about P.D. James’ latest mystery novel, “Death Comes to Pemberley.”  Given James’ prodigiously wonderful way with a phrase, I expected that the book would be many things –  a parody, a tribute to, and an extenuation of the beloved novel written by Jane Austen, which is of course “Pride and Prejudice.”  But it turns out to be something more, and very much less, than that.  Disappointing in almost every way, it was still a book I laid down but reluctantly, and always looked forward to picking up again.

How’s that for fence-sitting?

 I’ve so far only glanced at the various sequels that the original book has engendered.  One of them began with a coach ride featuring an uncomfortable Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett), sore from having submitted to Darcy’s obviously gargantuan caresses on their wedding night.  Hastily I put that aside, thinking that Jane Austen quite rightly ended all her books at the altar, leaving the reader to only imagine what came next.  Then a friend loaned me a copy of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which proved such an unresisting imbecility that I could stomach only the first two chapters before I hurled it against the wall; all the good parts had been lifted bodily from the original, and all the bad were merely relentless accounts of zombie attacks on the village of Meryton and elsewhere.  Talk about one joke being run into the ground!

But with P.D. James, I hoped that a writer of wit and culture was going to give me something to care about.  Alas, no.  Though Ms. James makes a very good attempt to duplicate the arch sophistication of Austen’s prose, and comes up with some wonderful Regency witticisms of her own, this type of writing is largely abandoned after the first chapter.  However, it is more than fascinating to see how James comes up with a few trenchant alternate explanations about Elizabeth’s real motives in snaring Darcy and how her so-called friends (I speak now of the duplicitous Ms. Charlotte Lucas) cynically reacted to their wedding.  Come chapter two, however, and the novel becomes a dry, British procedural, with only flashes of Austen’s brilliance surfacing from time to time.

When I think of “Pride and Prejudice), I am instantly in a world of sunlight and clarity.  But James’ novel is much more like the dark, turbid world of the Brontes, wherein even the landscape is bleak and moody (not to say muddy.)  Pemberley, it seems, is not the graceful baronial estate as described in the first book; instead it borders a hostile woodland in which even ghosts walk and where, we learn, Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide with his dog.  (Yes, you’ve read that right – with his dog.)  Perhaps James is correct in creating this mood and setting for what is, after all, a murder mystery.  But it is a mystery that concerns only the most peripheral of Austen’s original characters, and we are left to struggle as to why she would bother to write it at all.

In the original, the inevitability of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s eventual union heats every page; here they barely have a scene together.   If you go in expecting to be reunited with one of the most famous pair of literary lovers in history, you will be greatly disappointed.  Though they have had two children since the last book ended, you may well ask yourself – how?  There is absolutely nothing between them.  Oh, they yearn and pine for one another, to be sure, but only in their fervid inner monologues.  One begins to furtively wish for Elizabeth to ache in her nether regions again, but this is obviously an area which P.D. James spurns.

And yet, and yet…I could never quite put it down.  Perhaps the novel will improve when I reread it.  James prose is always elegant, and she ties up all lose ends (resulting in a literary Gordion knot, if you want the truth); suffice to say my interest never flagged.  Next time, though, I will have shed all my hopes and assumptions and will be able to read “Death Comes to Pemberley” as just another excellent mystery from the estimable P.D. James.  But I will have also shed any hope of seeing my beloved Elizabeth and Darcy in this odd but oddly compelling book.

Have you read The Stand In? Available on Kindle, Nook, eBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

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3 Responses to “Much Prejudice, Little Pride, A review of P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley””

  1. likeitiz February 29, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    Now I am having second thoughts on sending the book to my Kindle. I had it in line at some point to read. I’ve had my share of books I don’t really care for but could not leave alone and still ended up finishing. They all left this sense of dissatisfaction after. Nah! Maybe not.

  2. Brad Geagley February 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    Then read mine – no dissatisfaction whatsoever!

    Brad

  3. gotmyreservations March 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Death Comes to Pemberley is on my nightstand and on my TBR list. I thought your Austen/Bronte reference was timely considering that the light versus dark storylines is one of the satirical bits in Writing Jane Austen, which is my next book to review. I hope that you will come back to visit that post too!

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