Monday, 26 January 2015

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James

P.D. James tries to combine her mysteries with Jane Austen. There has been a great division of opinions on this book. The blurbs try to make it sound like the most amazing book ever. Most of the people I know who've read it dislike it intensely. I don't feel that strongly one way or another - at most, it awakens in me a sense of slight disappointment. This isn't that good, and it isn't that good on both the mystery and the Jane Austen novel levels. On the other hand, it isn't abhorrently bad. It's just bland enough that I don't have a strong reaction to it.

Let's take those two elements in turn. It feels like here, P.D. James is trying to show us how policing and the justice system has changed. But it's not really a mystery. It's missing a detective, or really, anyone who is looking at the evidence, trying to ferret out the truth. I realize that being a detective as such is anachronistic, but even without having that formal position or informal undertaking, the mystery part falls flat.

The story just sort of happens, and that would be okay, if it were a little more lively. This is sedate without being interesting. Austen may have been sedate at times, but she was also always interesting.

The answer to the mystery arrives by carriage at the end of the mystery, and so, without lifting any fingers, it is solved. This is less than satisfying. Other authors, writing before the advent of detectives, have still found ways to give us that central character who is trying to get to the truth. It might be an experiment to see if you can do without them, but it's not that successful of one.

As for it being an Austen book, ten years after Pride and Prejudice, it's not terribly successful at that. The faux-Austen prose is clunky, and that's almost an unforgivable sin. It calls attention to itself, and there is too much of a data dump about what they're eating, or what the rooms look like, and it seems to be there to prove that James has done her research, rather than for good effect. If she's trying to ape Austen, it's done without grace. Also, you're P.D. fucking James. You should know you don't have to show all your research.

The biggest problem, though, is that the characters are boring. Elizabeth Darcy should not be boring. She may have changed, but you can't make her boring. That's ridiculous. Also, you know how Austen always has that one character who chatters on and on and you kind of want to kill her, but she's also so vibrantly alive that somehow she needs to be there? There is nothing like that. At all.

Lydia ends up being more interesting than Elizabeth, and a) really? And b), if that's the case, give us more of her than just having her go into hysterics once. We keep hearing about her being overbearing, annoying, hysterical, and quite frankly, that makes her the most interesting character in this book, but we barely get to see her. There is scarcely a scene that I didn't think would be improved by her presence. If you've made a vibrant character, why would you banish her to the spaces between the pages?

As far as I can tell, the book is missing feeling. With it, I could have forgiven the rather lackadaisical mystery. In Austen, there is a distinct difference between what the characters are doing and what they are feeling. They may be acting proper, but man, is there stuff roiling beneath the surface. And there is really none of that. They all seem to be pretty much as sedate as they act, although mildly perturbed at what has gone down in the woods near Pemberley. That is not enough to make a book out of, and it certainly doesn't do justice to Jane Austen.

Oh, P.D. James. I do like your mysteries. But this one, while it wasn't atrociously terrible, missed on virtually every aspect I would have wanted out of this book.


  1. I totally agree! I watched the BBC adaptation first, which was actually lovely because they have more interesting characters, Lydia goes into hysterics several times and Lizzy actually DOES stuff. Plus, miss Darcy becomes a bit more interesting. So reading the book was actually... disappointing.

    1. I will have to check out the BBC adaptation then!