In acclaimed mystery author P.D. James’s riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has been married to Fitzwilliam Darcy six years and is the mother of two young boys. She is mistress of Pemberly, Darcy’s grand estate in Darbyshire, and responsible for the welfare of countless people who depend on the Darcys for their livelihood and well-being.
Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Charles Bingley, have left Netherfield for a large, modern home near the Darcys. Fitzwilliam’s young sister, Georgiana, is on the verge of making a happy match herself. Even Darcy’s formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has been won over by her new niece’s charming ways, although she now visits more often than the Darcys would like.
Preparations are underway for the young Mrs. Darcy to host her famed annual ball in honor of their mother-in-law, Lady Anne, when a coach arrives in the middle of the night in pouring rain to deposit Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia, the black sheep of the family. Lydia proclaims in hysterics that her husband, George Wickham, a charming scoundrel who has been banned from Pemberly, has been murdered in the vicinity of the estate. This plunges the family into chaos as they mount a search in the dark for Wickham and his friend Captain Denny, who had both dismounted from the coach and rushed into the woods after an apparent altercation.
The ensuing story is really more about landownership and the English justice system in the 1800s than it is about either the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy, or even the dead body in the woods. While we are told several times that Elizabeth and Darcy are deeply in love, they barely interact with each other. As for the mystery itself, the Darcys neither solve the mystery nor appear to take a particular interest in it, other than in their roles as the owners of the property on which the murder took place, and as the Wickhams’ estranged relatives. Much of their internal dialogue consists of how they ought to behave, and how they ought to be seen as behaving, in this difficult situation. The mystery itself is only solved because two characters unexpectedly confess to their role in the tragedy in the final pages of the book.
James, the author of twenty previous books, writes with great authority about the English country house setting, the lives of landowners and their servants, and especially the justice system. These serve to provide an expanded window into the time and setting of Jane Austen’s stories. The prose is self-assured, and there is even the occasional Austen-esque bon mot thrown in.
However, neither the characters nor the mystery are particularly compelling, and the writing lacks the sparkling wit and interest in the human condition that are Jane Austen’s hallmarks. Elizabeth and Darcy move through the story like robots, neither of them ever thinking, saying or doing anything that is not utterly conventional. Some of the characters are reimagined in ways that Austen fans will not find palatable—we are told that Catherine de Bourgh is amiable, while Charlotte Lucas is malicious and Colonel Fitzwilliam arrogant. However, even in their new roles, none of the supporting characters come alive. Tellingly, the new character of Alveston, the lawyer who seeks to marry Georgiana Darcy, is the only one who is allowed to speak through his actions and thus manages to jump off the pages of the book.
In spite of the stature of the author and the many glowing reviews Death Comes to Pemberley has received from critics, I found it not to my taste.