Publisher: faber and faber, 2011
Page count: 330 pages
“Death comes to Pemberley” is exactly what it sounds like: Jane Austen meets P.D.James, the queen of English crime novels. The book is set half a dozen years after Pride and prejudice with Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy blissfully married and the proud parents of two young sons, and the story opens on the eve of Lady Anne’s ball, when all of Pemberley is busy preparing for the annual ball originally instituted by Darcy’s mother. Elizabeth’s sister Lydia falls out of a coach in the courtyard of Pemberley screaming at the top of her lungs that her beloved Wickham (long since disowned by Darcy, as you’ll recall from Pride and Prejudice) has been shot.
Darcy immediately organises a search party into the forest and soon they come across Wickham, bloody and in a drunken stupor, standing over the lifeless body of his best friend, Captain Denny, crying “He’s dead! Oh God, Denny’s dead! He was my friend, my only friend, and I’ve killed him! I’ve killed him! It’s my fault!” And indeed, Capt. Denny is irrevocably dead, killed by a blow to the back of his head. In light of the evidence, Darcy and the search party have no choice but to bring Wickham and the body back to Pemberley, and call the local magistrate and doctor/coroner. Lady Anne’s ball is obviously cancelled, and instead gloom is cast over Pemberley as Wickham faces death by hanging if found guilty by the azises court. But is the case as clear-cut as it seems?
Being a fan of both Jane Austen and P.D.James, this book is like the ultimate fan fic to me, and I eagerly ditched whatever I was reading at the time in order to revisit some of my all time favourite characters in a story construed by a seasoned crime novellist. Unfortunately, the result is only halfway successful. Don’t get me wrong, P.D.James clearly knows the original work inside out and does an outstanding job in matching Jane Austen’s style and language. The period features are just right and, no doubt, historically correct in terms of how criminal proceedings transpired back then.
However, this books lacks a certain… oomph. For one thing, Elizabeth and Darcy are so blissfully married, they have largely lost the caustic wit and awkward stiffness, respectively, that made them so charming in the original work. For another, they are merely passive bystanders to a mystery solved by other people and by events outside their control. As a result, as a reader I never got properly engaged in the book – neither did I care about Wickham’s fate (let’s face it, he was always a good for nothing, conniving bastard) nor, more surprisingly, about Elizabeth and Darcy since it was always clear they would come out of the whole affair unscathed regardless of what happened to Wickham and Lydia. Consequently, the sad truth is that this book simply isn’t all that it could or indeed ought to be, and if Elizabeth and Darcy were your reason for reading it, then you may be more satisfied by fan fic online than by this book despite its obvious literary qualities…