Review: PD James – Death comes to Pemberley

PD James has been a staple of my reading since I was a teenager. My introduction to her was Shroud for a Nightingale which has remained my favourite and I have re-read it a couple of times over the years. At the age of 91, PD James could justifiably consider her writing career to have reached its conclusion, and in fact her last book The Private Patient had an end-of an-era feel to it. Therefore I was surprised (and slightly dismayed) to hear that she was going to write a murder mystery set in Pemberley, the home of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

I have to say upfront that I’m not particularly a fan of prequels, sequels or any tinkering of the classic texts (for example new Sherlock Holmes stories) by writers other than the original. I appreciate that they sell well, but surely creating new characters is part of the challenge of any writer, not utilising a ready-made ones. However, Pride and Prejudice is, after Persuasion, my favourite Austen novel and a mix of PD James and Jane Austen was just too irresistible.

As I would expect from PD James, the book was eminently readable. The book lacked a proper detective which was a shame but as we would expect from James the solving of the crime was nicely done. The writing style she adopted for this book was unusual, a cross between her own and Jane Austen’s, although predominantly Austen. I thought it a fairly faithful recreation of the feel of the original books although it did lack Austen’s sardonic gaze. Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship, for example, was slightly saccharine, whereas Austen would have added a drop of bitter lemon.

I found some of the characterisation a bit hit and miss too. Naturally the chief suspect in the murder of the dashing Denny, an officer in Pride and Prejudice, is the scoundrel Wickham. This is fair enough. But James clearly doesn’t like the amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam and his portrayal in the book as the slightly predatory suitor of Georgiana I found wrong. I also didn’t like the reference to Anne Elliot, the heroine of Austen’s Persuasion. Austen is no Balzac. Characters don’t generally cross over novels and I found the references to a different book out of place.

Nevertheless, it was a delight to revisit the beloved characters of Pride and Prejudice. I’m not sure how much the book would appeal to those unfamiliar with the original although the first chapter is in effect a precis of the original plot. Judging by the discussions on blogs and twitter it seems Jane Austen fans have taken the book to their hearts and it has proved a hit with crime fiction fans too. It was a very enjoyable read over Christmas and made me think I ought to dig out my old copy of Pride and Prejudice despite its miniscule print.

For other (crime fiction) reviews see crimesquad.com and Reviewing the Evidence.

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17 thoughts on “Review: PD James – Death comes to Pemberley

  1. Very nice review, Sarah. However, I have previously read two sequels to P&P (many years ago), both of which I thought dreadful, and all due respect to PD James I have no wish to read another. P&P is perfection just as it is! (I have in the past read sequels to other favourite novels and have always been disappointed, so I made a policy decision about 15 years ago not to read any more).
    Like you, I enjoyed P D James’s earlier books as they were written, I particularly liked An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and felt it a pity she did not develop that character and even have her (as hinted) becoming involved with Dalgleish. I never liked the colleague for him she created subsequently, and in fact went off her books a while back. The last one I read was set in a publishers’ and was very out of date compared with what it is really like working at a publishers. Oh well, they were good once.

    • I agree with you about sequels Maxine. I didn’t even like ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ that everyone raved about. And yes, I liked the Cordelia Gray books too although it’s been a while since I read them.

  2. Sarah – Thanks for an excellent review. I like P.D. James’ work very much, although like Maxine, I’d have preferred to see more of Cordelia Grey. Not sure I’m going to read this one, though. I’m immediately stopped by the “crossover” aspect. That’s not something I find appealing at all, really. I probably shouldn’t, but I think at least for now I’ll give this one a miss…

  3. It’s certainly sold well, but reviews on amazon are mixed.

    64 reviews and an average of 3 stars (mostly her recent books have averaged four stars):

    9 five star
    14 four star
    7 three star
    20 two star
    14 1 star

    So slightly over half the reviews are definitely negative.

    Over at amazon.co.uk there are 86 reviews and an average rating of 2.5 stars!

    14 five star
    7 four star
    16 three star
    22 two star
    27 one star

    Have you read Carrie Bebris’ Jane Austen mysteries? I was wondering how those compare. I know she hasn’t James’ stature, but she has made a sustained effort within this sort of select subgenre.

  4. Shroud for a Nightingale remains my favorite James and it’s forty years old now! I started reading her in my twenties, back in the 1990s, and still read everything she writes, so will try to get round to this one eventually.

  5. Thanks Curt for the Amazon statistics. I hadn’t thought of looking there. I don’t think the book deserves one star and I will have a look through some of the reviews to see why some reviewers think it so poor. And no, I haven’t tried Carrie Bebris. I don’t usually read these style of books but I made an exception for PD James. Glad you like ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’ too.

  6. Think you’ve just prompted me to pull out “Shroud for a Nightingale” again! Thanks for the input on “Death comes to Pemberley” I was listening to Elaine Charles’ “the Book Report” last week, where it was also previewed. For those keen on books, you might find her radio show of some interest too; if you go to the site http://bookreportradio.com/ you can either look at the schedule for her upcoming shows, or take a listen to archived shows with books and authors that appeal to you. Always nice to get a different take on things. Thanks again for the great blog.

    • Thanks so much for you comments. I follow Elaine Charles on Twitter but I haven’t caught up with her shows yet. I will take a look and the website and have a listen. I’m glad you like the blog. There is so much that I want to read – I have some (hopefully) great books lined up for early 2012.

  7. A fine review, and I also feel like rereading “Shroud for a Nightingale” now.

    I am not at all sure about this one as I hardly ever read sequels to other writers´ books, but I am not daunted by some bad Amazon reviews. I know how unfair some of those are 😉

    • Reviews are extremely subjective and it sounds like you are talking from experience. I personally wouldn’t write up a one star review because I know how much work goes into a book. I doubt PD James cares though. I think she had fun writing this.

      • Heck, Pemberley is at number nine on the New York Times fiction bestseller list. I doubt the Baroness is too worried about negative amazon reviews! Still, some Janeites aren’t happy with the book, apparently. They can be a tough crowd! 😉

  8. Hi Sarah, I listened to this book on audio, it was interesting but I didn’t really get the flavor of the time period. It went on and on with the trial, much repetition, I got bored with it. Can’t say I’d give it more than a 3 because I didn’t dislike the book but I didn’t feel wildly crazy about it either. I’m a big fan of P. D. James though. So this was just not her best effort. I will be listening to anything else she writes.

    • Hi Jennie. I can imagine the trial dragged on in the audio format. I have listened to quite a few PD James on audio discs and always find them quite satisfying. As you say, it is just not her best book.

  9. Pingback: Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd « crimepieces

  10. I suspect that James wasn’t that impressed by Austen’s lackluster portrayal of Colonel Fitzwilliam and had decided to add some oomph into his character. Let’s face it . . . he wasn’t that interesting in the original novel.

    I suspect the real reason many didn’t like this novel is that it’s P.D. James doing her take on “Pride and Prejudice”, using a murder mystery. Naturally, Austen’s style would be much sober in James’ hands.

    • Hi – thanks for communing on the book and sorry it’s taken me long to respond. I’m a huge fan of James’s, I just suppose this didn’t do it for me. I’m not opposed to the idea of a murder mystery. It was the long courtroom scenes I found difficult.

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