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

by Ahalya on March 23, 2012

James' homage to Austen

In Death comes to Pemberley, P.D. James adopts Jane Austen’s immortal lovers Elizabeth and Darcy and fashions a gruesome crime in their Victorian world of manners.

Not only does James adopt the characters (and others we have met in Pride and Prejudice), she also adopts the convoluted language of the time, the history, and all the prevalent prejudices. And she does it with such evident ease and expertise that it’s hard to believe that this book is a product of this century! Austen’s trademark witty, epigrammatic universal truths, that slide across the pages in her books, do the same graceful dance in this book as well.

And that’s it.

As far as the murder goes, and the hunt for whodunit, the book falls way short of my expectations. Much of the book, after the murder is announced, is devoted to describing the fragile health of various family members, the dilemmas they face regarding how to meet, or spurn, various characters, and other such rather inconsequential little details. I kept waiting for P.D. James to appear. She who has created the policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh. Where is that scrutiny of the motivations and psycholgical profiles of her suspects that James unleashes slowly and steadily on the reader? In all her other books she does focus on the furniture more than the murder, but she uses these ‘digressions’ to establish something about the crime. She draws our attention to the ordered world that the murder took place in, to show exactly how chaotic and unpredictable people can be. The effect of all this is that the reader, learns to solve the crime by using his/her knowledge of people, coupled with James subtle hints. That is not to say that readers find out whodidit just by reading about alibis and figuring out who would benefit most from the death. James gives information in the foreground and background of her novels, thus giving the reader a whole lot of information, with which someone astute could reach some conclusion about the identity of the killer. What James, and other good authors of crime thrillers never do, is withhold all the important, crucial information, and maybe even some characters, from the reader, just to pull out the trump card in the last chapter, when all is revealed, when it is too late for the reader to exercise his/her mind.

In a good crime/murder mystery, the big picture falls into place little by little, with one or a few pieces missing, but, it’s annoying to read a book that withholds practically all the jigsaw pieces until the final pages. In Death comes to Pemberley, it all boils down to a final confessional letter delivered in the last few pages, and a recap of events that none of the characters we saw were part of. It’s a bit like watching a movie, with crucial scenes missing, or parts of the screen blacked out, or finding out that a few characters were deleted only to be brought back on screen in the end. So, this was quite an unsatisfying read.

Oh, and Darcy? That man all other men must live up to? He doesn’t have a meaty role. He is on every page, but he does nothing. I kinda expected him to play a central role in unmasking the murderer, but the rug is swept from under his feet too. That’s quite  a letdown. Elizabeth seems to be a shadow of her feisty former self. Not much spunk left in her, either. Alas.




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