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Arts in Review

Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

P.D. James, well known for her mystery and thriller novels, blends an artist’s passion for Jane Austen and her skill for mystery writing, creating a rich, evocative story.

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By Sasha Moedt (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: January 25, 2012

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have been brought back to feed Jane Austen fan’s insatiable appetite. It’s another story for Austen fans to hate or love – perhaps easier to love than one introducing zombies.

It’s exciting to see a prolific author writing a story from Jane Austen’s beloved world – this isn’t just fan fiction. P.D. James, well known for her mystery and thriller novels, blends an artist’s passion for Jane Austen and her skill for mystery writing. She knows Austen’s world through and through, and creates a rich, evocative story.

To be able to read lyrical, vivid descriptions of Pemberley and hear old names of Meryton brings a nostalgia every Austen enthusiast seeks. But her story is more than just that: James weaves an emotive depth into a suspenseful mystery set in the wooded English countryside in 1803. James does not try to mimic Jane Austen’s writing style, and in this way her story is acceptable – mystery-thriller suits Austen well. James reveals an emotionally charged story, where the characters remain true to what Austen created.

P.D. James begins her story six years after Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage. The prologue to her story is enjoyable, a recap of Elizabeth and Darcy’s courtship from the viewpoint of the baffled and gossipy townspeople. James relays the speculation and assumptions of the people of Meryton with a touch of humour. She informs the readers of the surprising marriage of Mary, unexpected because of her bland and unsociable personality – and the equally surprising matrimonial failure of Kitty.

It’s these details that makes James’s novel worth reading; they act as the breath of life for a beautiful story from a writer who has the artistic abilities to do so. Austen’s stories can be read in so many different ways. And because they are so beloved, readers attempt to recreate them with the same multiplicity of interpretation. There are “SteamyDarcy.com” websites for erotica, novels written set in current time and works like this: Austen placed in a specific genre. But fan fiction isn’t nearly as credible and effective in evoking Meryton and Pemberley as authors like P.D. James. It is a privilege to find an author so well-versed in Austen’s world, with a lyrical writing style and penchant for story-telling.

The tale continues to describe the family Elizabeth and Darcy have made together. James will please any romantic Austen reader. The marriage has remained happy, with two young sons in the nursery. Pemberley is a warm home and the Bennet family, excluding Lydia and Wickham’s squabbling, is content and settled in their various places.

But, one dark and windy evening, Lydia Wickham rides to Pemberley in a clattering carriage, screaming murder – Wickham is dead. The story continues from here, not at a fast pace expected from a thriller. James does not write flashy detective work and quick, gruesome deaths in this story, but she effectively holds interest with her characterization and pacing.

She further develops Austen’s characters, the high strung and capricious Bennet family, the arrogant but loving Darcy, the selfish Wickham and Elizabeth, clever and bold. She also introduces new characters with as much depth as the old ones, and their interactions with the well-known characters are interesting.

The mood is dark and grim as old conflicts arise in a happy household. James deftly develops and gives insight to old quarrels. The most captivating is when James puts Darcy and Wickham head-to-head once more, bringing the old hatred into a new light.

But since Jane Austen was partial to happy endings, just as every fan (even the ones that wrote about zombies) loved those endings, James remains true and sentimental. After a beautifully written dark and suspenseful tale, P.D. James leaves Austen’s characters content in their story, as they should be. Calling all Austen fans – this one is a gem.

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