Thursday, January 19, 2012

Death to Pemberley

Okay, okay, so it's not actually that bad (although I'm sure my readers are super-excited by more Austen, yesh? *glares meaningfully*).  My most recent read was P.D. James's latest release, Death Comes to Pemberley, which I found neither dreadful nor stellar.  The fact that I kept accidentally referring to the book as Death to Pemberley, however, is telling.  But, I am happy to say that although the novel started as a fairly meh read for me, James had me smiling by the end (if only a little... okay, there were a few grins).

The Basics
James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

I typically avoid Jane Austen sequels as I find most tedious and poorly written, but James's Death Comes to Pemberley had an interesting premise that drew my attention. I also knew that the author had a long a respected history. P.D. James is a British author who has written at least 20 books, many of which have been adapted to film.  She is famous as a mystery writer, particularly for her character Adam Dalgliesh. James was born in 1920, has a rather impressive background in British government, was made the Baroness of Holland Park in 1991(which is pretty darn spiffy, let's face it), and has excellent taste in scarves.*

Death Comes to Pemberley really begins with the arrival of Lydia Wickham to the estate, screaming that her husband has been murdered.  It is soon discovered that the ever dramatic Lydia was wrong, and that it is instead Mr. Wickham's friend who has perished.  Wickham, found covered in blood and shouting about it being his fault, is soon arrested for murder.  Though perfidious, Wickham does not tend toward violence, and the rest of the novel follows his journey through the early 19th century justice system as seen through the eyes and experience of Mr. Darcy.

The Book
I really wanted to whole-heartedly like this book, but there were just one too many details that made me twitch. The novel can be divided into writing with two distinct purposes: 1) mimicking Austen and grounding the book in the world of Pride and Prejudice and 2) spinning a successful murder mystery in its chosen setting.  James succeeds at the latter with an expected ease, but her attempts to conjure Austen often fall short. Since this is to be a mixed review, let me begin with what I disliked about the book.

The language James uses when writing parts primarily relating to the mystery is fluid, easy, and engaging.  But, when the novel strays from the mystery and attempts to connect to Pride and Prejudice, the writing does not come close to doing Austen justice. I never expected James to be able to approach Austen's style of writing, but at times, James clearly tries to mimic Austen's style and tone to the detriment of the book.  In these moments the language is stiff and not engaging, whereas Austen's prose flows well and pulls readers in.  Long, convoluted sentences that are almost paragraphs themselves (and don't always match from beginning to end) do not make a period tone and certainly don't approach Austen's style.  Even when pulling phrasing directly from Pride and Prejudice, James does not quite achieve her goal. Given the notable change in language, style and construction during the mystery parts, I really wish James had stayed consistent and true to her own, quite readable, style.

I also found her characterization of a few favorite figures to be flawed.  I did not like or agree with her characterization of the people of Meryton (as a group) and their jealous interpretation of Elizabeth's acceptance of Mr. Darcy as well as their general dislike of Elizabeth. I thought this seemed at odds with Elizabeth's representation in the book. Her account of Kitty's future is also contrary to the original book, which clearly states at its conclusion that, to her benefit, she spent most of her time with Jane and Elizabeth after their marriages (though I did find the account of Mary's marriage a nice touch).  But most particularly, I disliked her characterization of Colonel Fitzwilliam.  James's sketch of the Colonel paints a very different sort of personality than the affable Colonel of Pride and Prejudice, and I don't find her explanation as likely to account for the drastic shift in personality.  I understand that James needed to change his character to fit her chosen story line and add an air of mystery, but I still don't like it.  Blessedly, James's characterizations of Darcy, Elizabeth, Lydia, Wickham, and Mr. Bennet are mostly on point.

But enough of my dislikes.  While the parts intending to evoke Pride and Prejudice might drag, the mystery makes up for it.  The mystery surrounding the murder victim's fate is well written and very engaging.  I wanted to know what happened and sped through the novel well enough to find out. Fortunately, once readers work past the sketchy opening, most of the novel follows the mystery towards its solution.  It also provided a really interesting look at the British justice system (though I admit, I have no idea how accurate it is), which James and her background can easily supply.  I enjoyed the tension and dramatic buildup of the investigation, inquest, and trial.  And the solution to Wickham's predicament, even if it arrives via dues ex machina (which I'll not spoil with details), is an exciting enough relief to the tension which has, at that point, reached its height.

Even as I disliked the opening, I largely enjoyed James's conclusion to the novel.  Her disposal of Wickham and Lydia provided them with a reasonable expectation of starting over while tidily removing them from the possibility of further inconveniencing the Darcys.  James's method of acheiving this was unexpected but believable and enjoyable. I also got a kick of her solution for the placement of the little boy (I'll say no more, though I'm sure you'll suspect within a few chapters), and the reference to Emma elicited my first real grin, like the proper Austen-nerd I am.  The concluding conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth threatens to fall back into the disappointment of previous passages, but is saved by Elizabeth's announcement, which could only make me smile.

Despite my qualms with some of the novel, overall, I found Death Comes to Pemberley to be an enjoyable little mystery and a worthwhile read.

*Just look at that scarf


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