Skip to main content

Death Comes to Pemberley: P.D. James




Death Comes to Pemberley









P.D. James

(Knopf Canada 2011, Hardcover) 291 pages, $32 msl


The shrewd novelist planning the latest work that will fill a slot on library shelves for centuries to come is well advised to make sure that his hero and/or heroine are left irrefutably dead, ideally done in by so hideous a manner that no one will ever want to revisit the scene. Dame Agatha Christie, no fool when it came to characters and copyrights made sure that both Hercule Poirot (in Curtain) and Miss Marple (Sleeping Murder) had final cases with no hope of an encore. On the other side of the literary plain, I doubt if it entered his mind, however F. Scott Fitzgerald made a sharp move by bumping off Gatsby rather than having he and Daisy Buchanan go riding off into the sunset in an open-topped yellow roadster.

Why is this? Well you see, if the novel has a happy or open ending and receives the stamp of approval of millions of readers, some bloody hack is going to stumble in once the author’s rights have expired and completely bugger the whole enterprise by writing a speculative ‘sequel’.

I very nearly gave up on reading as an enjoyable pastime by burning my eyes with repeated exposures to such speculative sequels. The last thing I’m going to do is look up the specific titles and authors - a memory sensibly lost is best left that way - but there was a follow-up to Gone With the Wind (ghastly), Casablanca (wretched) and even Winnie the Pooh (tonstant weader...you know the rest). Honestly, there may not be any original ideas left in the world, yet that doesn’t mean all the old ones are good.

With these horrifying experiences as the backdrop, I opened the cover of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley with all the confidence of an ingenue in a horror movie opening the door to the basement stairs. Just in case the title of James’ book didn’t clue you in (pun intended and rather enjoyed, by me anyway) Death Comes to Pemberley is a follow-up to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a murder thrown because, you know, it’s P.D. James. That’s who she is; that’s what she does.

Oh, just in case you’re hopeful - George Wickham is not the victim. Wickham, maybe the first of the great literary roués, is instead the accused innocent. Yes I think that was a mistake. Everybody who has ever read Pride and Prejudice would happily take a hand in a Murder on the Orient Express style mass execution. (If you’ve never read Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, ha ha jes’ kiddin’! It was the railway conductor what punched his ticket.)

Instead of Wickham being dropped off a cliff or having his skull cleaved by a niblick, a Captain Denny is demised by mysterious means in the woodlands of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s estate Pemberley. Wickham himself is found drunk and sobbing over his dead friend Dennys’ body, moaning that he has killed his best friend. Complications arise.

But let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to business. Is P.D. James taking on the world recorded by Jane Austen up to the task? I’ll vote yes, with a substantial reservation. The second question: Is the mystery itself worthy of P. D. James? That one is tougher to answer, but I’m voting no.

Let’s deal with that second question  or issue first, as it is much easier to answer. Murder mysteries are in some ways melodramas. In a melodrama, if you don’t give a shrug about the girl tied to the train track, you don’t care whether or not the train saws her in half. No care, no boo, no cheer. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Denny’s demise is not a tragedy; it is a plot convenience. Someone has to die and James made the choice that it was not going to be any of Bennet, Bingley or Darcy clans. And this had to be a very calculated choice James made, to not sacrifice any of the beloved characters. Captain Denny’s wounds are better described than his character; hell, I can’t even remember now if he had a mustache or what his age was. So the reader’s lust to see justice! I say justice! … is not particularly fed.

The most puzzling note - and it truly amazes me to write this, as I would happily place James along with G.K. Chesterton as the most cunning of mystery writers - is that there are no viable suspects. Everybody is so damnably decent and absolutely no credible character thinks Wickham done him in, save for the Magistrate and who ever believes the initial opinion of the investigating officer in a mystery? James loves Austen’s creations too much to make any of them naughty. Murder needs naughty like sex requires naughty.

Now, as a pastiche of Austen’s style, great swaths of Death Comes to Pemberley is actually pretty good. I’m willing to wager that the short Chapter 2 in Book Four titled The Inquest is the first section James wrote. It is a pleasant reflection on Elizabeth Darcy’s first visit to Pemberley, remembrances of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, etc. In sum, a five finger exercise by an accomplished pianist.  James has some of Austen’s raised eyebrow of ironic statement - i.e. ‘Since even the most fastidious among us can rarely escape hearing salacious local gossip; it is as well to enjoy what cannot be avoided..’ Zing! Everyone behaves just as you would expect them to behave; there are no discordant notes.

I am curious as to why it is that once the trial of Wickham begins, James effectively shoves Elizabeth off-stage and instead focuses all the action and internal thought on the men in the novel. She makes a turn for the boys, as it were, and here too I believe a mistake has been made. Jane Austen is as much an industry as Shakespeare and Dickens precisely because she was (forgive the wearying term) the proto-feminist.

Ultimately, I suspect that this was a work of love for P.D. James. It has all the evidence of a work years, decades perhaps, in the making. Her insights and theories into some of the smaller plot points in Pride and Prejudice are academic-worthy. And I’m quite sure Colin Firth will do a fine job once more strapping on the breeches, dear friends, in the inevitable movie. This is an enjoyable enough read for Austen fans who crave more, or for P.D. James who have an equal craving. I just wish there had been a little more desperado and a little less devotion.

Be seeing you.






(If you would like to buy your own copy of Death Comes to Pemberley, you are welcome to do so...Here.)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Blocks by Karl Parkinson

The Blocks

Karl Parkinson (New Binary Press 2016, Trade Paperback) 274 pages, cover price N/A

There's a tremendous irony in our lives you know, and it is one as large and predominant as the oxygen we breathe yet equally as invisible, equally ignored; an irony as imperceptible as the blood within our veins that itself only comes to our notice when the skin breaks and the blood trickles free before we hide the wound with a bandage and secure the blood back where it belongs. That irony is this: Our most basic desire, expressed in equal parts of hope and fear, is that we want to continue to live. And why? Because we want our individual lives to be different than what they are.
Karl Parkinson's first novel, The Blocks is a mad, tragic, stylish and daring exploration into that self-same need to survive and yet to change. The Blocks of the title themselves are neither those of the prison nor a child's alphabet; at least not literally although the reader may rightly infer those meta…

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell
Ian McEwan (Knopf Canada edition 2016, Hard Cover) 197 pages, $29.95 cover price
We have to talk about the concept first. Oh I had a long and lively internal debate about it, you can be sure of that. After all, all books have concepts that we accept without too much fuss – talking animals, sentient corpses, thought-filled trees, the whole Harrod's bought stuffed menagerie of Winnie the Pooh carrying on like a picnic gathering of the British Women's Institute with special invited guests from the Royal Society of St George – we accept all of those without too much fuss. I've even admitted to sniffing up a tear or two over The Brave Little Toaster, so if one can be moved by a bloody kitchen appliance then why not a sentient foetus as the central character of Ian McEwan's Nutshell?It probably won't surprise you that I have a theory to go with that, slightly more substantial than an amuse-bouche if not quite a meal in itself. My thinking is that we go with the ta…

White and Red Cherries by Tanja Tuma

White and Red Cherries: A Slovenian Civil War Novel

Tanja Tuma (Self-published 2016, Trade paperback) 301 pages with glossary and bibliography, cover price n/a
It dawned on me like a thunder strikes a tree: this petite young girl embodies a mission, her reason to exist. Every one of us embodies his mission by what he does. We are what we do. Not chemical elements, but our deeds define our being. We are neither the faith we trust in God, nor the love we give and take. The least of what we are is the genetic code we get from our parents, which in turn lives on in our descendants. No. We are what we do at this moment in this bloody world. Our deeds can defy eternity. They can mirror our will and freedom forever. Those words are thoughts by the elderly Martin, born during the Second World War and raised by the partisan heroine Valeria Batič as her son, when his natural mother Ada quite literally tossed her baby from a train window to Valeria as the train pulled out for Vienna. Ada you see w…