My first reaction when I saw the book some weeks before Christmas, displayed beckoningly among the other new releases at my local indie bookshop, was to scoff. Another Jane Austen spin-off, just what the world didn’t need. However, as I perused the other titles, my gaze kept drifting back to the book cover: that hurtling chariot and the mysterious woman’s hand extended out the cabin window. “Okay,” I said. “Just for a laugh, I’ll read the synopsis.”
The synopsis quickly turned into the first few pages and then the entire prologue and then… I stopped myself a few pages into the first chapter. This was crazy! If I did stoop so low as to break my hard and fast rule never to read spin-offs of literary classics, especially of the untouchable Jane Austen, then at this rate I’d have nothing left to read when I got the book home. But I didn’t buy it then. The prejudice that famously blinded Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet now prevented me from giving in to my curiosity.
But curious I remained and on my latest visit to Blue Elephant Books I hesitantly asked my bookseller about it.
“I’ve read it – it’s very good!” she said. “I was suspicious too, but as a lifelong fan of Jane Austen and PD James, I gave it a try. It’s a mystery, you know. There are so many spin-offs of Austen that I just don’t bother with, but this one is different. It doesn’t try to do what Austen already did so well.”
That was all I needed. People, always ask your bookseller’s opinion. You won’t be disappointed.
She was right (of course). Death Comes to Pemberley is a murder mystery, which is its saving grace. PD James sticks with what she knows – writing mysteries – and doesn’t attempt to recreate the drama’s of daily life for which Austen earned her acclaim. James simply borrows Austen’s setting and characters and, for the most part, successfully brings them convincingly back to life. There are only the occasional (and forgivable) lapses in authenticity, usually due to her modern day reader’s preference for shorter monologues, though even with these she borrows liberally from Austen. The whole project must have been one mischievous indulgence for James. The occasional and loosely concealed allusions to famous Austen characters from her other books, who here are cleverly connected in minor, background ways to the story being played out at Pemberley, read like winks exchanged between James and her readers.
The story picks up six years after Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage (alongside sister Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley). The couple has since established their lives at the Darcy family estate, complete with children, house-hold management, filial duties and balls. On night before the Darcy’s annual and most highly-anticipated ball, they, with a few close friends and family are gathered in the library while a storm rages outside. On cue, a chaise appears on the edge of the woodlands, careening wildly down the drive toward the house. The frantic woman who falls out of it is Lydia, Elizabeth and Jane’s imprudent and boisterous sister, and she is screaming that her husband, Wickham, the villain of Pemberley, and his friend Denny have been murdered.
And so begins the murder mystery. In the succeeding pages we revisit familiar stories of Wickham’s treachery, new characters and plots involving the servants of Darcy’s estate, feuding neighbors, and disgraced members of the family tree, and of course, new scandals which threaten to pollute the shades of Pemberley.
It’s a page-turner and, most importantly, all done in good fun. Devotees of Austen should not be too offended; PD James makes a tongue-in-cheek apology to the author at the beginning of the book for “involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation.” Appropriately, James does not take herself too seriously for the remainder of the book.
So tell me, have any of you read this book? What is your position on reading classics spin-offs? For example, would you dare (or have you!) read anything by this guy? I’d love to hear!