Death Comes to Pemberley

I’m going to break my word limit here. Just warning you. I actually got my rant down in January but wordpress ate it. So now I’m trying again. With frequent ‘save draft’ clicks.

Death Comes to Pemberley
PD James
(faber & faber, 2011)

You can totally see the logic that meant someone gave this to me at Christmas. It’s three of my favorite things in one bundle: Pride and Prejudice, crime and “non-canonical fiction”. I really need a better term for it than that but “professionally published material making use of another’s fictional universe” is a mouthful. And Mark Lawson’s “literary continuation” deliberately seeks to exclude the wilder, less legal, edges of the field. Whatever you call it, I’ve shelves of it.

‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is a sequel to ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Elizabeth Darcy (formerly Bennet) is preparing to host the annual Pemberley ball when a body is discovered in the grounds. Darcy, one of the local magistrates, has to investigate and suspicion quickly falls on his childhood friend – and adult rival – George Wickham.

As in Emma Tennant’s Pemberley, characters are made to undergo radicial personality changes in order to enable the author’s desired plot. You can accept Lady Catherine de Bourgh softening her attitude towards Elizabeth once there are (male) heirs at Pemberley. But one of the other characters from the original is so distorted to enable him to play a role that I was thrown out of the narrative.

Not that I’d got particularly into it. An entire chapter at the start is given over to recapping the plot of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. It was the only section of the book that raised a smile, in fact, by being the only bit to capture some of Austen’s sly spirit and tone. But P&P is hardly an obscure text, and the whole book is sold on being a P&P novel. It seems either gratuitous to do an unrequired recap, or egotistical to assume a reader has bought the book on the author’s name alone.

There’s 137 books riffing on ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Yes, really. It’s an industry that rivals that of non-canonical Holmes. There is, in other words, a massive audience for P&P fiction.

So how does it read as a crime novel, if you set aside the P&P elements? It’s an alright, but rather dry, procedural. Mention of the police early on confused me, as I wasn’t sure there was a police force – at least in rural England – in 1803. And so we progress through the arrest, the trial etc., and the resolution. The crime is solved not through Darcy having unusual perceptions and being a proto-detective, but through confessions. That’s not the sort of crime novel I find satisfying, and there wasn’t enough puzzle to play with as a reader.

By trying to sit on two stools, this novel falls down instead.

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