Death Comes to Pemberley: A Partial Review

200px-CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810)_hiresI’m a Jane Austen fan, ever since I read Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager, and giggled at the subtle, gentle humor of those comedies of manners. Before opening the books, I was warned they might be difficult to understand for readers used to being spoon-fed ideas, so I’d best pay attention.

I did. And I loved them.

Then, in my twenties, I encountered Persuasion, and my first attempt at reading it ended after the first chapter or so: too many commas, as if Austen had found them on sale at a punctuation store, and made free with them all over the page. (Those extraneous commas may have loomed large due to my state of mind at the time rather than any quirk in the writer’s presentation.)

However, a friend had given me the book, despite herself not liking Austen, so I determined to overlook the excess punctuation and finish the story. When I did, I found a lead character with which I could identify, having myself been persuaded despite my heart.

160px-Jane_Austen_signature_from_her_will.svgNow, I own copies of each complete Austen novel, a biography, some of her early writings (fun!), and various incarnations of her stories on film (three versions of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, and two of Persuasion, and have owned up to three copies of Emma, though one has since gone away).

51sBuLT1ZzLAlthough amused at the recent romantic comedy/horror story mash-ups of the novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters), I wasn’t intrigued enough to read them, and although many modern writers have created sequels or spinoffs of the original material, I hadn’t read any until checking out a library copy of Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, an author whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed reading on occasion. (She is also the author of a dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men, that became a movie starring Clive Owen, and her Adam Dalgliesh novels were adapted for television; I watched them on Mystery! on PBS.)

Happy to have a stack of books to relish, I chose Death Comes to Pemberley as my first course in a literary meal.

The prologue amused, because it mimicked Austen, and I thought, “Well done, Baroness James!”

But then I hit chapter one. Then chapter two. And realized this was neither as scintillating as Jane Austen nor as mysterious as P.D. James, but some strange, bland mess that respected neither the authors nor the source material.

The characters from Pride and Prejudice lost their personalities, and became strangers to the reader, with Darcy and Elizabeth questioning their marriage: Should they have married at all? Did they love one another? Did Elizabeth choose Darcy only for his money?

James seems to have missed the fact that Elizabeth was a great one for irony: she would say the opposite of her true feelings or thoughts on a matter, just to poke fun at herself or to spar with a conversational partner. Therefore, she was not being serious in Pride and Prejudice when she mentioned falling in love with Darcy only after seeing his sumptuous estate.

Before the visit to Pemberley, she also had his letter, revealing some uncomfortable truths as well as making himself plain. I figure that went a long way toward kindling romantic feelings, which were likely present beforehand, although disguised as conflict. (There is a distinct push-pull when one is attracted to someone one believes is not quite acceptable, and Elizabeth and Darcy kept circling one another in social situations, never quite able to not engage.)

So, just those three things — the letter, the pre-existing attraction, and Elizabeth’s character — negate the doubts and second thoughts presented in James’s novel.

There was a distinct lack of suspense about this mystery. There’s no tension, intrigue, or interesting quality in the writing.

I didn’t care that Wickham was accused of murder. I never liked him anyway. He was a scoundrel and cad — as presented in P & P — and therefore why should I care now? Also, and I didn’t like the fact that a likeable, reasonable character (Colonel Fitzwilliam) was being written as the unlikable side of a love triangle, as well as a potential suspect in the murder of another somewhat likeable character (Captain Denney).

I tried liking Death Comes to Pemberley, but could only slog through until several pages after Wickham was found beside Denney’s body, and then I had to admit I was too bored and annoyed to continue reading.

We writers all have times when the words are enemies we fight, or when the stories are mountains we can’t climb with any grace, and I have loved James’s novels in the past. This one book is not the end of that affection. It’s an aberration. I shall not recommend it to other readers, because there are far better examples of her work elsewhere.

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