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Review: Death Comes to Pemberley



Highlights: Getting more of favorite characters (such as Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Mr. Bennet) and spotting those borrowed from other Austen novels.



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James is true to the Pride and Prejudice characters Austen fans know and love, and the mystery is well plotted and written in a prose style worthy of the original.


It seems a trifle perverse to introduce brutal murder into a placid world of minor social and familial upheavals. Unlike in the original novel, Elizabeth Bennet and the other female characters take a backseat to the men.

Posted April 15, 2013 by


Grande dame of British crime fiction P.D. James makes a passable stab at imitating Jane Austen’s style in Death Comes to Pemberley, an absorbing mystery novel set in the world of Pride and Prejudice – her writing is stately, witty, and authoritative in its limited sphere. She is knowingly playful with regard to tradition: “If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?” However, I did notice the occasional phrase that reminds the reader that this is a twenty-first century novel rather than a nineteenth: “make a move,” “in the picture,” and “keep in touch” are a few. In general, though, her prose is a worthy stylistic tribute.

Darcy's superciliousness has mellowed to dignity.

Darcy’s superciliousness has mellowed to dignity.

There is much here for Austen fans to enjoy. The action is set six years after the end of Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy and Elizabeth married and the parents of two sons. James revives some minor characters, and gives us a bit more of characters it’s impossible to get enough of (such as Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Mr. Bennet). Her plotline is always true to the behavior we’d expect from these characters, i.e. lasciviousness from Wickham, restrained dignity from Darcy, sinister family dealings from Mrs. Younge, and so on. She even playfully borrows a few characters from other Austen novels: the Elliots from Persuasion and Harriet from Emma.

However, it does feel a bit perverse to introduce a brutal murder into this placid world where the only upheavals should be social and familial, and everything should settle back into its proper place before too long. Moreover, the whodunit plot (don’t worry, I won’t spoil your reading experience by revealing any details!) requires creating entirely new characters who aren’t present in any original Austen novels.

Elizabeth stands up to Lady Catherine.

Elizabeth stands up to Lady Catherine.

My biggest problem with the book was that – unlike Austen’s fiction generally – it tends to sideline the female characters. All the women can do is fuss over the injured and hysterical; they are not allowed in court, nor are they privy to any of the details of the crime and its solution. Elizabeth Bennet is one of the strongest and sprightliest heroines in English fiction, yet here her presence is almost negligible.

I enjoyed reading Death Comes to Pemberley, but ultimately I wondered whether it was necessary. I haven’t read any other Pride and Prejudice spin-offs or fan fiction, so I can’t comment on the quality of this compared to other attempts (though I imagine this is of a higher caliber), yet I can’t help but think – why not go back to the original and best?

Especially for today’s readers, who mostly know the stories through their television and movie adaptations rather than through Austen’s own words, surely there can be nothing better than the original. P.D. James is clearly talented; she has produced a tautly elegant crime novel that would be entirely adequate were it not for its lofty literary antecedents. One Austen novel must be worth a dozen detective potboilers.

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Rebecca Foster

An American in London, library assistant by day, and lover of all things bookish. I'm also a literature programming team volunteer and guest blogger for Greenbelt arts festival, and a reviewer for We Love This Book's website. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are contemporary literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction (especially Victorian-set), graphic novels, foodie lit and nature writing.


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