Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
This seemed like a dream book! First, I love Jane Austen and in particular Pride and Prejudice. (Having read it at least two, possibly three times before, I kept a paperback copy in my car during several years of attending softball and field hockey games: I would dip in during game delays and bad weather, always coming up refreshed.) Apparently, James is a longtime fan of Austen, as well.
And, I’ve enjoyed a number of P.D. James’s crime novels (as well as her dystopian tale The Children of Man) and I (still) plan to catch up on those I’ve missed. James knows how to cast out a series of narrative threads, then weave them into a web that draws you in. She typically combines storylines about the victims, suspects, and detectives with a detail-driven police procedural plot—and her method works, quite well.
The much-heralded Pemberley attempts to blend an Austen narrative of British society (a glimpse into Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, several years on) with a James narrative of crime. Alas, James tries hard to adopt Austen’s style and tone—the analytical, almost gossipy, layering on of details about appearance and social milieu—but it comes off flat. And there is so much repetition of the very same details, as if James had to pad the (rather thin) story to get to a certain number of pages. (Austen was never guilty of that!) I finally started skimming, skipping whole chunks of text, almost complete chapters, to get to the anti-climatic ending. Happily, I didn’t miss the clever references to other Austen characters—the Elliots of Persuasion and Harriet of Emma—near the end of the novel.
So very disappointing. It makes me wonder whether an author with a such a strong voice of her own is the best candidate to mimic the beloved voice of another author. I read a negative review of Pemberley when the book first came out last fall, and thought, I bet that writer just doesn’t get what James is trying to do, perhaps he doesn’t really appreciate Austen’s works, or James’s works, or both. I was wrong and he was right: this one was a bit of a stinker.