Partially due to events outside of my control (also known as the library hold list), I found myself reading P. D. James’s latest mystery while juggling several other books, all of a very high standard. This had the unfortunate effect, I believe, of diminishing my appreciation of James’s story. After the top-notch writing of Shakespeare and Bolaño, I had a hard time letting go and just enjoying the mystery, and found myself nitpicking the writing instead. Which is unfortunate, because I think Death Comes to Pemberley could be a perfectly enjoyable visit to Regency England, provided the reader knows what to expect.
James is perhaps best-known for her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries. It has been too many years since I read one, so I can’t compare that series to this latest work. As the title suggests, Death Comes to Pemberley is James’s foray into the world of Jane Austen “fan fiction.” In this entrant, it is six years after the events of Pride and Prejudice and everything is happy in the lives of Lizzy & Mr. Darcy and Jane & Mr. Bingley until a carriage carrying the hysterical Lydia Wickham arrives at the doors of Pemberley. Lydia is sure that a murder has occurred; as one has, an investigation and trial must ensue.
Reading this novel, it occurred to me that there are actually multiple ways to approach the novel. First, I could look at it purely as Jane Austen fan fiction: how does it live up to Austen herself? Second, it is a mystery—does it survive as a mystery alone? Third, I could look at it on its own merits, ignoring the Austen comparison AND the conventions of the mystery genre. Or of course, any combination of the three.
Fan fiction, that is, writing based upon the characters, world, plots, etc. of another writer, is often given a bad name or looked upon with disdain by some readers. (A scan of the bookstore shelves proves that plenty of readers are interested in it.) I’m sure that feelings that the second author is just riding the coattails of the original author plays a part. However, I wonder if that third way of looking at fan fiction plays a part: how often do we encounter fan fiction that could stand up on its own? Publishers are faced with a money-making priority and so, if attaching Austen’s name to a so-so book will sell more books than a stand-alone well-written novel, it is completely understandable that they might choose to publish the lesser novel. Too, there is that word “fan.” Does it imply an enthusiasm that outweighs merit? I have never read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I understand that it is a response of sorts to Jane Eyre. Yet I don’t hear (at least not often) it called “fan fiction.” Is this because as a post-colonial response it loses the aspect of “fan?” Or is it because of my third reading, it stands up on its own, that is, it is well-written and therefore readers are afraid to call it fan fiction because of possible negative connotations? Or something else I don’t see entirely?
But back to the novel at hand. If I take my three readings, how does it fare?
As Jane Austen Fan Fiction:
Here, James holds up pretty well, in my view, although with a few caveats. James is well known already; her name sells books even without appending Austen’s. I believe she truly wrote this as a fan. That said, she knows that perhaps not every one of her readers will be as familiar with the original story as others, and so she wisely incorporates a prologue summarizing the events of Pride and Prejudice, retelling it from the view of the Meryton gossips (a conceit I enjoy). So far so good. But I found that as the early chapters progressed, there was just a tad too much of additional summary. I also felt James stayed true to the characters of the novel (Mr. Collins and Lydia in particular were recognizable!), which can often be the downfall of follow ups—or even TV/movie adaptations. The one character that seemed a bit “off” is Lizzy, although I’m not sure she’s “off” so much as missing. We simply don’t see her that much, whether because James was afraid to take over such a beloved character and so tread too lightly, or because it served her story better to focus more on Darcy. Regarding the new characters, they felt like they belonged rather than unwanted intrusions.
As for the tone, I really thought it was spot-on. In my view, James doesn’t try to (badly) imitate a historical style of speaking or writing, but her own vocabulary is so excellent that this doesn’t sound too contemporary, at least not to this 21st century reader! The pace is slow, but this feels appropriate to an Austen “sequel,” so long as it is expected.
As a Mystery:
Most of James’s fiction has been mysteries, and I think this is the strength of the book. The mystery isn’t overly convoluted, as befits an era when detection and police-work was still in its infancy. (The first detective force in England dates to 1753.) James has clearly researched the crime-fighting and legal system of the era, and I spent a little too much time looking up images such as this one, of the Old Bailey.
On its Own:
As a mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley would stand up without the Austen story. Unfortunately, its literary merits are where I felt it was weakest. And honestly, I think all it needs is one more edit. That’s it! My biggest pet peeve while reading was the inclusion of exposition in dialogue: Mr. Darcy knows how the constable system works already; he doesn’t need someone to tell him. Move the explanations outside of the speech and we’ll be good!
So my final impression is of a decent mystery set acceptably in the world of Jane Austen which could be just a tad better.