I love Jane Austen and I love British mysteries, so P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley sounded like a sure winner. James opens the story some years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth and Darcy have two small sons. All the period detail (at least as far as I know) is caught with careful accuracy, and Austen’s characters and their histories are faithfully rendered.
Perhaps this is part of the difficulty I had with the book. There is no larger than life detective, derring-do, or scrapes with death. Everyone (especially Darcy) acts exactly as individuals in that time and place ought to. True, there is a death, a coroner’s inquest, and a trial, but they are delivered at arm’s length. For the most part, the main characters do not take an active part in the investigation, nor is anything other than their good name on the line. Darcy is by turns painfully correct, worried about failing the Pemberley legacy, and glum, but he does not roll up his sleeves and start interrogating.
I personally would have liked something a bit more down and dirty, with the characters in the crosshairs of more than potential gossip. But that’s my problem. Austen wrote with most of her action off stage, never bringing scandalous activities directly on scene but only reporting them after the event. As little as I like it, the author is being faithful to the model.
However, I missed Austen’s caustic wit. For the most part, Lizzie is reduced to a cipher, as is her chemistry with Darcy. There is no irrepressible female viewpoint to lampoon the pretentions of society. The lightness, spirit, and incisive eye for character—that which made Austen memorable—fail to materialize. Most of all, even if the characters won’t be impacted by more than scandal, I need to care about the outcome. Because the Pemberley folks are so far removed from any real consequences, this was difficult.
I think this is the problem when one anticipates a book with great relish. If it does not deliver the expected treat exactly right, it’s hard not to judge it harshly. All I can say is that this wasn’t what I was hoping for.