The Baroness channels Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley

April 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

  Baroness James of Holland Park, better known as P.D. James to detective fiction aficionados, has gifted us with a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. This is how it begins:

It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.

I am pleased to report that matters continue pretty much in the same vein. In Death Comes to Pemberley, the Baroness emulates Austen’s gracefully antique prose style with nary a lapse.

Before launching into the main body of  the work,  James brings us up to speed on the doings of the Bennet family.  Then the action of the novel commences with a description of the preparations for Lady Anne’s Ball. This is a lavish celebration traditionally given at Pemberley, the great estate belonging to Mr. Darcy. He now shares this fabulous domicile with his wife Elizabeth, nee Bennet. (Darcy is considered to have married beneath his station; neither Elizabeth nor the reader can long remain oblivious to this glaring and, to the modern reader at least, irritating prejudice.)

Death Comes to Pemberley gets off to a slow start. Actually, glacial might be a more accurate description of the pacing of the narrative in its early stages. Had it been anyone but P.D. James, I might have thrown in the towel early on. But this is an author whose work I revere, and besides, where books are concerned I’ve been doing so much towel-throwing lately that it behooved me to stick with this one a bit longer. And the fact is, the Baroness’s novels are wont to be somewhat measured in their approach to storytelling, especially as regards their first few chapters. And sure enough, around page 51 of the hardback, things began to happen. The pace quickened; my interest was piqued. Why was this so? A murder happened, of course!

Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is now married to George Wickham.  In Pride and Prejudice, these two precipitate a crisis by their impulsive and ill considered behavior. In James’s novel, they are once again at the center of the storm. Yet oddly, the reader spends relatively little time in their company. I found this particularly frustrating with regard to Lydia. I was surprised that James did not allow that feckless and foolish young woman more opportunity to vent her spleen in reaction to the dire situation in which she and her husband find themselves. I am sure that she would have been deliciously outrageous!

This is not to say that Death Comes to Pemberley is without comic relief.  Particularly in the early parts of the novel, James’s sly wit is a delight and very much in keeping with the spirit of Jane Austen. Some instances:

…if Miss Elizabeth had entertained any doubts about the wisdom of her scheme to secure Mr. Darcy, the first sight of Pemberley had confirmed her determination to fall in love with him at the first convenient moment.

This is said of Mary, another of Elizabeth’s sisters:

An assembly ball was a penance to be endured only because it offered an opportunity for her to take centre stage at the pianoforte and, by judicious use of the sustaining pedal, to stun the audience into submission.


P.D. James has always had an almost uncanny ability to set a scene:

Entering the library, Darcy saw that Stoughton and Mrs. Reynolds had done their best to ensure that the colonel and he were made as comfortable as possible. The fire had been replenished, lumps of coal wrapped in paper for quietness, and added logs lay ready in the grate, and there was a sufficiency of pillows and blankets. A covered dish of savoury tarts, carafes of wine and water and plates, glasses and napkins were on a round table some distance from the fire.

She also can’t resist slipping in an intriguing bit of  information about a singular innovativion in English country houses in the early nineteenth century:

‘…Mason complained that his legs were stiff and he needed to exercise them. What he probably needed was to visit the water closet, that newfangled apparatus you have had installed here which, I understand, has caused much ribald interest in the neighborhood….’

What do you know: indoor plumbing comes to Pemberley! A reference this specific would surely not have made it into an original Austen novel; nevertheless it was enjoyable to encounter it in James’s narrative. For the most part, James manages to steer clear of glaring anachronisms. But there are times when the writer of detective fiction trumps the novelist of manners. I’m thinking in particular of a scene in the woodlands belonging to Pemberley . When several persons find some letters carved in a tree, they fall into speculation as to what kind of instrument was used to do the carving. The scene began to resemble something out of CSI rather than a novel of manners from the early 1800’s.

In point of fact, those very woods hold more than one secret concerning the mystery of the murder at the Pemberley estate. Toward the novel’s climax, there is a veritable cascade of revelations. I found these late-breaking developments at times hard to follow. For me, the best “”Aha!” moment actually had nothing to do with information concerning  the crime and everything to do with an almost offhand mention of the cast of characters from another Austen novel.  James pulls this off seamlessly; it is probably my single favorite moment in the book.

A great idea for a book discussion group would be to read Pride and Prejudice and follow that meeting with a discussion of Death Comes to Pemberley. Indeed, I felt somewhat hampered by the fact that at the time I was  reading James’s novel, Pride and Prejudice was not at all fresh in my mind.

I’ve talked to a number of people who did not care for Death Comes to Pemberley. They found it labored and/or unconvincing. On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would place it in the front rank of my favorites in James’s oeuvre. At this point in time, that accolade goes to A Certain Justice.

There can be little doubt that Death Comes to Pemberley was an enjoyable exercise in authorship for the Baroness, a lifelong devotee of the works of Jane Austen:

Indeed, the novel was a pleasant romp, but I found it neither profound nor especially thought-provoking. I felt keenly the absence of a brooding and introspective, not to mention deeply attractive  (especially as portrayed by Roy Marsden in the TV version) central character. In other words, I missed James’s superb series creation, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.



  1. Angie Boyter said,

    I agree that the experience would probably be a lot more fun if it were read side by side with the Austen!

  2. Yvette said,

    I’m one who did not enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley at all. It was a great disappointment to me especially since I’d particularly requested it for Christmas. I really was expecting something wonderful.

    However, I can recommend a very good pastiche which I read last year – it uses the characters and setting from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Have you read it yet?

    Murder At Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd. I enjoyed this very much.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Wow – Interesting. As I said, I’ve encountered this negative assessment from a number of readers. And thanks for the recommendation of the Lynn Shepherd title; I don’t know it.

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