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

Was the plan to write a sequel to Jane Austen’s iconic Pride and Prejudice always going to be too ambitious ... even for an author as illustrious as the great PD James?

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 28th November 2011, 6:00 am

In lesser hands, it could all have been an embarrassing failure but not so here as 91-year-old Lady James pulls off the feat with magnificent aplomb.

Death Comes to Pemberley is a staggering achievement; a classic Poirot-style ‘big house’ murder mystery, set amidst the orderly world of the now happily married Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy, that actually works.

Even the most fanatical and purist ‘Janeite’ must often have pondered how things might have turned out for the Darcys after their famously turbulent courtship and this is probably the most satisfying and entertaining follow-up that one could possibly imagine.

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Written in the wry and lively spirit of the original and with a welcome reprise of some of Austen’s leading characters, James cleverly mixes romance and crime whilst tying up the loose ends of Pride and Prejudice and introducing an endearing selection of new faces.

There’s the fun of spotting how other Austen heroes and heroines have fared as well as the rewarding experience of sinking luxuriously into the kind of intelligent crime thriller on which James has built her formidable reputation.

The year is 1803 and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the nursery, Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband Charles Bingley live nearby and the world of Pemberley seems unassailable.

It’s a wild and windy night, the eve of Pemberley’s annual glittering ball and the guests are preparing to retire for the night.

The peace and order is suddenly shattered when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from the estate’s surrounding woodland. As it pulls up, Lydia – Elizabeth’s younger and unreliable sister – stumbles out screaming that her dastardly husband George Wickham has been murdered.

Darcy and the other gentleman set out to search the woods and eventually discover a drunk and bloodstained Wickham kneeling by the body of fellow officer Captain Denny and crying out that he killed him.

It looks like an open and shut case but, despite Wickham’s history of ungentlemanly behaviour, Darcy is convinced that the scoundrel is not capable of murder.

As Wickham’s murder trial begins, the Darcys find themselves inextricably caught up in a case that threatens not just their happiness but also their safety.

James is a self-confessed, lifelong Austen fan and Death Comes to Pemberley moves with the same pace and verve as Pride and Prejudice but with the added twist of an exciting whodunit, some detective forensics and a little upstairs and downstairs politicking.

A real ‘dream team’ production...

(Faber, hardback, £18.99)