Death Comes to Pemberley
(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.)