Review: Mystery

Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

Now, I know that it’s odd to be reviewing an extension of Pride and Prejudice when I haven’t reviewed the book itself. But a proper review of Pride and Prejudice would probably take me hours, because I’d feel like I had to go through not just the book, but also all the TV mini-series and movies I’ve seen, which makes the whole thing a very exhausting prospect.

So let’s just say I like the book and leave it at that for now.

Well, actually, it’s probably obvious that I like the book, considering that I picked this up. Because, really, I don’t know P. D. James, and would have otherwise had no reason to read it.

Its selling point, as the back lauded, was that it was a thriller told in the style of Jane Austen. That description intrigued me, so I bought it and read it.

While I won’t go so far as to say that it was a waste of 10 euros, because it still was engaging now and then, I will accuse that reviewer of gross exaggeration. Or perhaps I should just blame myself for expecting too much. It’s not truly in the style of Austen—though to be fair, it would take a considerable amount of study to get that right—and now and then out-of-place statements would jar me straight out of the story. But James conspicuously lacks Austen’s wit, which leaves the telling dry and with little to grip you to the pages other than your affection for Austen’s characters and possibly involvement with the plot. It also was not at all what I would define as a thriller. It is a simple sequence of events, which I shall now lay out in a spoiler-free manner: life is going on as usual, a person turns up at the doorstep crying murder, a person is found murdered, the case goes to court, the court makes its decision, and then after this revelations come to light. So really, it’s more of a legal drama than anything. But still, it lacks that gripping element that legal dramas generally require, found in all the classics: To Kill a Mockingbird, Adam’s Rib, etc.

The story—by which I mean, the bare elements of the plot—is well thought out and well executed. But I cannot help but feel that this would have been a much more engaging story had James decided to mould her own characters for the parts rather than adopt Austen’s.

The story opens with a prologue which retells the events of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of an outsider. By this I mean that Elizabeth is clearly a gold-digger, who had designs on Darcy right from the start. It goes on past the end of the book, however, detailing other things such as the children of the Bingleys and the Darcys, and telling of Mary’s marriage as well. This is fine, and actually quite well done. I laughed, reading this chapter. But it went downhill from there.

There were, overall, three faults I found with this book.

First of all, James’ interpretation of many characters is far grimmer than my own. Apart from Mr. Bingley, Jane, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, there is no character from the book made to be likable. Which is, of course, true to the spirit of the book on some level. However, these other characters—whom in Austen’s book were written as though to be laughed at—were egregiously more irritating in this book. If you didn’t believe that there were a more irritating version of Lydia than Austen’s, then brace yourself.

But even then, Elizabeth and Darcy’s happiness is cloudy in this book. Darcy is so in love with Elizabeth, and so determined to make himself happy despite all the annoyances, scandals and bad reputations which come along with her family that the sheer effort of it diminishes their happiness. Wickham is as ever he was, and along with Jane and Mr. Bingley became one of the only 3 characters that I felt James portrayed in a way that did justice to Austen’s story. Georgiana, though given more scenes than she had in Pride and Prejudice, was little more than a shadow being offered an attempt at personality, and ultimately had little more purpose in this book than that of potential wife to certain crucial male characters. Contrary to Austen’s delicate portrayal of Col. FitzWilliam, the kind, likable but unromantic character is little more than a pile of flaws in this book. There is naught but tatters left of the friendship shared by Charlotte and Elizabeth in the book, and it is in fact made out to be Charlotte who sent Lady Catherine to Longbourne near the end of Pride and Prejudice.

Secondly, James refuses to operate with subtlety, and as such, what probably amounts to half (or more) of the book is given up to detailing the lives of various characters. Mostly characters from the books, but occasionally characters invented by James as well. While this paints vivid images of the characters in the readers’ mind, it also takes away space previously free for interpretation; and while this would not exactly be a flaw if made out with characters all James’ own, the fact that it was done with pre-existing characters of whom the reader very likely has their own, different interpretation made it a little bit akin to having a portrait stuffed down your throat against your will.

I don’t claim that James’ interpretations are wrong. Historically speaking, I know little of Regency England; no doubt James did the research, and reads the characters the way they were meant to be read. However, on several occasions there were paragraphs that detailed some aspect of a character that seemed unnecessarily bleak, and all too often simply unnecessary.

Lastly, if you have recently read Pride and Prejudice as I had when you read this book, the discrepancies are glaring. On several occasions details leaped out at me that were all too clearly not in keeping with the events of Austen’s story.

But putting these flaws aside, the plot was, as I have said, engaging enough to be exciting, once you get past the first 4 chapters or so (and by that I mean approximately 2/3 of the entire book).

James also pays homage to 2 other books of Austen’s in the text of this tale: Emma and Persuasion. This was surprising to me, because of all of Austen’s books, these three are the only three that I truly enjoy, and they are the only three referenced by this book (though, of course, there is always the possibility that I missed a reference or two to some of the others).

So my overall score is 4/10. Worth reading if you really like Pride and Prejudice and mysteries.

Buy the book at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Death-Comes-Pemberley-Baroness-James/dp/0571288006
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