Book Review
Sunday, April 1, 2012
P. D. James Tries Her Capable Hand at a Jane Austen Mystery

By Reviewed by John French

"Death Comes to Pemberley"

By P. D. James

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95

The Prologue to "Death Comes to Pemberley," by P. D. James, is a little literary marvel. In just 10 pages, James ably summarizes and helpfully extends Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" to set the stage for the events of her book, a sequel that takes place six years later.

She accomplishes this feat in charming, Austenesque prose. For example: "Miss Bennet's beauty, gentleness and the naÃØve optimism about human nature which inclined her never to speak ill of anyone made her a general favorite."

And sardonic humor abounds. Here is Mr. Bennet commenting on one of his sons-in-law, George Wickham, who has been accused of murder: "Lydia's husband seems to have distinguished himself by this latest exploit in managing to combine entertainment for the masses with the maximum embarrassment for his family."

Our 91-year-old author, the real-life Baroness James of Holland Park (so created in 1991), has 20 prior books to her credit. This latest effort of hers is an international best-seller and no wonder: The combination of her skill and Austen's characters is irresistible.

And now, to our story. The former Miss Jane Bennet, now Mrs. Bingley, has been happily ensconced for six years in wealth and comfort at her husband's estate, Highmarten. The former Miss Elizabeth Bennet, now Mrs. Darcy, is similarly situated at her husband's estate, Pemberley. Jane has produced five daughters; Elizabeth, two sons.

The only fly in everyone's ointment appears to be Lieutenant George Wickham, a handsome, unscrupulous officer who has charmed many a local lady, including, for a time, Miss Elizabeth, and had persuaded the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, to run off with him. (If you read "Pride and Prejudice," you know this part.)

Wickham's marriage to Lydia salvaged the remnants of the Bennet family honor, but it did not produce a general reconciliation. Lydia is welcome to visit Jane at Highmarten and Elizabeth at Pemberley but Wickham is not welcome in either home. He accompanies his wife to the general vicinity and then stays at a local inn.

This puts a grievous crimp in social relationships. When a grand party is planned, Lydia is not invited because her husband will not be permitted to attend.

Meanwhile, Baroness James populates her story with other notable characters, including, for example, Georgiana, Darcy's younger sister. Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy's cousin and closest friend, who has it in mind to court Georgiana. Mr. Alveston, a rising young lawyer who also has romantic intentions regarding Georgiana. Mrs. Younge, who once was retained to be Georgiana's companion and has now moved on to other pursuits. Plus an array of relatives, friends and their families that's enough to make the reader's head spin.

It is, of course, essential that James throw all of these people in our path. She is, after all, writing a murder mystery, so there must be many complications and numerous suspects.

The most important social event in the county is Lady Anne's ball, named for Darcy's mother and staged at Pemberley. The Darcy family, servants and prospective guests are single-mindedly preparing for that occasion. Unfortunately, Lydia is fixated on it. Invitation or no invitation, she will be there.

Which brings us to the day before the ball. Lydia has a plan. Wickham, accompanied by his best, and perhaps only, friend, Captain Denny, will travel with Lydia by coach to Pemberley where they will drop her off and proceed on to an inn in a neighboring town. Lydia's sister, Elizabeth, ever gracious to her siblings, will permit the uninvited Lydia to remain at Pemberley for tomorrow's ball.

On the evening in question, the Darcys are entertaining Alveston, Col. Fitzwilliam and the Bingleys at dinner. As the party is breaking up, a coach is seen careening down the road toward Pemberley. A woman is almost falling out of the coach and shrieking wildly into the wind. As the coach arrives at the door, it becomes clear that the woman is Lydia. Howling and struggling, she cries, "Wickham's dead! Denny has shot him!"

And that, dear reader, constitutes only the first 50 pages of a book that runs six times that long. There is enough confusion and mystery in what follows to tax even the most avid fan of the genre. Baroness James strews the path with red herrings. They are slippery indeed.

Throughout it all, one repeatedly has to marvel at the opulence of the British upper class at a time when the United States of America (still called the New World in Britain) was in its infancy. A wealthy, titled family had a vast country estate supported by a veritable army of tenants and ornamented by a manor house the size of a hotel. Guests often dropped in unexpectedly but there was always room for them and a place at the table.