Monday, January 23, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

You know you are in the presence of a serious writer when you look at the picture of P.D. James on the back of Death Comes to Pemberley and realize that this sweet grandmotherly-looking gal has in her apparent dotage chosen not to rest on her considerable crime-fiction-laurels but to challenge herself by adopting the literary persona of Jane Austen for her latest novel.  I haven't read any Austen in years and years, and confess that my familiarity with Pride and Prejudice stems largely from its place in the plot of the second Bridget Jones novel, The Edge of Reason.  So, I see a lot of Mark Darcy a.k.a. Colin Firth in James' Darcy, and it is entirely not her fault.  Emma Roberts also plays Elizabeth in my minds' eye, even though she starred in a film version of Sense and Sensibility, not P and P.  Details, details.  They all speak marvelously well. 

But I digress.  Death Comes to Pemberley is a splendid diversion in all the best ways.  James' latest investigator, Adam Dalgliesh, had become a touch too flatly serious for my taste, at least, he left little impression last time which says much, so I am not sad to not be with him here.  In DCTP, James/Austen picks up on P and P six years later, writing in the style of Austen.  Most of the Bennet girls are married, more or less happily, and Elizabeth and Darcy in particular live in wedded bliss at the elegant manor of Pemberley.  Death arrives at night, in a carriage, and genteel unrest ensues.  James does not perhaps get quite as much to the humor as Austen might (this is a murder mystery after all), and the pace of the plot is much slower than modern crime fiction generally delivers.  But the elegantly dense Austen-like prose is worth taking one's time with and the delights of Pemberley and its neighbors are deliciously savory.  Much like those tarts the cook is always putting up in baskets to be taken to the less fortunate on the estate. 

Despite the muslin, and Lydia's hysterics, and all the strictures on women of the very early 19th c., there is something bracing about Elizabeth's approach to life, a sort-of chin-up-and-get-on-with-it, albeit most graciously.  The murder of the title upends her emotional world as much as it does her social one, and yet she soldiers quietly on writing notes, taking care of the estate and all of its minions, and accommodating the many ridiculous and demanding characters to whom she is related by blood and by marriage.

I've not yet finished this novel, but am already torn between ekeing it out and racing to the end.  It's that much fun.  Janeites might protest at this usurpation of their heroine's voice.  But as with Scarlett, you know they are all reading it!

UPDATE.  Have now finished this, it kept me up late last night.  The epilogue takes the read back to Pride and Prejudice, and if one hasn't read that in several decades, one might not quite admire the ending so much.  It feels rather tacked on, as if the author felt she had to circle back to the original inspiration.  Also, Elizabeth, in my opinion the most interesting female character, rather fades toward the end of the story as Darcy comes to the fore.  Perhaps that why we had to sit through a re-hash of P and P.  All in all, however, this is a fine read, one might even say a tour de force that shows that the old gal (James, that is, not Austen) still has a literary trick or two up her proper sleeve. 

On a culinary note, there is an extraordinary amount of cold meat proffered and consumed in this book.  It is 19th c. literary affection I think, but the reader must understand that we are not talking about a deli platter here.  Unlike most brit crime fiction, I did not find myself compelled to down cups and cups of tea while reading this.  Wine, wine, wine, that is the beverage of choice at Pemberley, with the exception of the ill-fated Wickham (who is a whiskey man) everyone drinks it constantly.

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