Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
This book feels like a case of fan fiction meets Agatha Christie, but not the good Agatha Christie. The fact that the book has as its premise that we return to the world of Pride and Prejudice makes it something of a sure thing, given that James’s reputation was long established before the novel. Not that it feels mercenary in design. I have the sense that this is James’s homage to Jane Austen and that it was delicious fun for her to write. If you are the kind of writer who updates the classics, writing sequels to or adaptations of great books that are out of copyright, then the idea of a murder at Pemberley would be irresistible. You climb right up onto Austen’s back and type away. There’s no reason to berate James for doing something that has appealed to all kinds of writers, and she herself notes that Austen probably wouldn’t think much of the effort. But the writing here is notably poor. James’s sentences, here at least, have a run-on, unpunctuated quality that does not match the grace of Austen in any way. The murder mystery is really not much of a mystery; there’s a notable lack of detective work. Wickham is the possible murderer, the charming villain of Pride and Prejudice, and he is only saved by the confession letter written by the person who actually caused the death of army officer Denny, whose identity is more or less incidental to the story. The true purpose of the book is to revisit Austen’s beloved characters. I never could overcome the sense that this is not the real future of Elizabeth, Lydia, Jane, Darcy, or any of the rest. Nor could I believe that this is James at her prime, since the book was published when she was 91. The most disappointing part of the book is that it culminates in a series of chapters in which people sit in period-furnished rooms and tell each other stories (or read letters) that put the solution of the murder offstage and almost out of sight. This was Christie’s great feat in book after book, but in most of her books the telling of the story is direct, from the detective to the suspects, and comes at a point when we have seen clue after clue that have us ready for an explanation. In this book, there are hardly any clues, and no detective, and the revelation falls flat.