Death Comes to Pemberly

January 5th, 2012

The instant I heard PD James interviewed on NPR regarding her latest book Death Comes to Pemberley, I knew I was going to have to go to great lengths, possibly even murder, to lay my hands on a copy. Fortunately, the CD saved me from committing any such grisly crime by purchasing the book for me for Christmas. Having never read a PD James book, but being somewhat familiar with her mysteries via Masterpiece Theater, I figured that if anyone could pull off a Jane Austen murder mystery, it might be her. James is a highly awarded author and a popular one as well, plus she loves Jane, is British and it would seem that these two things might work together for the good of those that love Jane Austen and are called for her purposes.

Did I enjoy the book?  Why yes I did! In fact, I read it almost non-stop.  Was I appalled by James’s interpretation of two of my favorite characters of all time, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, her description of Pemberley and the way she involved most of the principal characters of Pride and Prejudice in her murder mystery?  No, I was not. I generally enjoy it when one artist toys with the work of another. But I must say that as a devoted Austen fan, I was also not entirely pleased with this re-visioning of the work of Austen. I imagine that any devout fan of Austen will experience moments of deep regret and other moments of immense satisfaction while reading this book. It is fun to revisit Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and see them enjoying their married life, raising their children and caring for their estate and their employees. Throughout the book, one is reminded of their great love story and it is fun to think about it again in a new context.

Sadly, all the female characters of Austen’s story are largely insignificant in this book. While the men take firm control of the narrative, hauling bodies around, guarding suspects, attending trials, crashing through the underbrush to find evidence and agonizing over their allegiance to one another, the women can only worry, fret, wring their hands and toss and turn in sleepless nights. The absence of Elizabeth’s perception and wit is especially noteworthy as the story unfolds.

In her interview on NPR, James confesses that Pride and Prejudice is not her favorite Austen book. Instead she cites Emma as the Austen tome most dear to her heart and at the end of Death Comes to Pemberley she weaves in her favorite story in a manner that actually brought tears to my eyes. And though it is a moving moment in the story, the reason I was swallowing back a lump of emotion had nothing to do with the story line. It was more the naked affection of P.D. James for Austen in her determination to bring in her favorite book that caused tears to sting my eyes. For it was not the act of a great writer that joined Pride and Prejudice to Emma, it was the act of a devoted fan and that was something I could relate to on a deeply emotional level.


  • Erin:

    I just bought this too! I haven’t started it yet because 1) I’m re-reading P&P first, and 2) I’m going to read MOV’s book that I just bought as well!!

    Glad to hear you liked it- I saw it in entertainment weekly and thought it sounded right up my alley!

  • Thanks for sharing your review! I’ve been trying to decide whether to read this. Austen takeoffs are always hit or miss.

  • Kay in KCMO:

    I finished this three days ago! I was also saddened by the fact that there was none of Lizzie’s wit and resourcefulness; she seemed dumbed down to me, as if marriage and children had sucked all the will out of her. And her relationship with Darcy lacked spark. Overall I thought it was okay, but not something I’m going to return to over and over again.

    • Rechelle:

      I completely concur Kay. It seemed to me that PD James was much more comfortable with the male figures than she was with the female. I also thought she was a bit tragically intent of explaining things correctly from a historic perspective such as the mechanisms of the court system. Who cares? I would have much rather heard Lizzie’s voice in more of the story.

  • I love PD James’s mysteries, but I hadn’t seen anything about this book. I might have to check it out.

  • Clay C.:

    Well said, Reychelle. Well said.