Jane Austen’s turf, P.D. James’ mystery

Death Comes

to Pemberley

A Novel

P.D. James


Alfred A. Knopf: 292 pp., $25.95


Death comes to Pemberley, one of the great houses in Derbyshire, and a most unwelcome guest it is.

Not only does the loss of life come at a most inopportune time, the night before the annual Lady Anne’s ball, the highlight of the local social season, but it is a most violent and unexpected fatality into the bargain.

“He has been bludgeoned,” the examining physician says of the victim. “The wound is characteristic of the severe head wounds with strands of hair, tissue and blood vessels impacted into the bone.”

Severe head wounds caused by a bludgeoning? In the woods near Pemberley? Surely there must be some mistake.

For Pemberley, as those devoted to Jane Austen know, is the ancestral estate of Mr. Darcy, the stunning property to which he and his bride, Elizabeth Bennet, retired at the end of “Pride and Prejudice.” What on Earth is such extreme violence doing there?

No one understands the incongruity of this more than the woman who brought death to those particular woods. That would be the British writer P.D. James, the venerable 91-year-old author of potent detective fiction for whom the word “doyenne” might well have been invented.

Herself a major Austen fan, James starts the book with an author’s note in which she allows, “I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation.” Especially because, as James points out, Austen had plainly declared in “Mansfield Park,” “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can....”

Still, this is not the first time Austen’s characters have been thrust into disturbing waters, and having P.D. James as your guide is certainly an improvement on the likes of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” If you appreciate mysteries as well as the Mighty Jane, this pleasant entertainment will do nicely.

For one thing, it is certainly fun to get back in touch with the old P-and-P crowd, and James briskly brings us up to date. Darcy and Elizabeth, now married for six years, have two young sons, and, not surprisingly, see an awful lot of Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley.

New to matrimony is bookish sister Mary, who has married a rector, while flighty Lydia is still wedded to Wickham, who had a moment as “something of a national hero” because of actions during an Irish military campaign before leaving the service and returning to his generally feckless life.

It is one of James’ typically shrewd insights to understand that if something like murder were to touch society at Pemberley, Wickham would inevitably be the cause. A man of sketchy moral character who is forever looking for the main chance, Wickham gets the plot rolling when he is discovered slumped over the body of one Captain Denny, proclaiming, “He was my friend, my only friend, and I’ve killed him! I’ve killed him! It’s my fault.”

As events unfold and attempts are made to figure out exactly what went down in those woods and who is to blame for the captain’s death, new characters come into play, most prominently a dashing and successful attorney named Henry Allerton who happens to have his eye on Darcy’s sister Georgina.

Also interested in Georgina is another returnee from the Austen book, Col. Fitzwilliam, an officer often described as “among the most handsome and gallant in the British Army.” Coming back as well is the hysterical Lydia, a particular bete noire of James, who lambastes her “erratic outbursts of noisy grief and querulous complaining.” A further key player is Darcy’s deceased great-grandfather, who turns out to have been a recluse whose closest emotional relationship was with his dog. Who knew?

Wickham’s involvement with shady dealings is, of course, no surprise to Darcy, and chunks of “Death” are taken up with his resentment against the man he feels has been too much in his life, a feeling James describes as “a bitterness of spirit broken from time to time by surges of anger, like the rush of an incoming tide.”

As that passage makes clear, though these are Austen’s characters, this novel reflects James’ sensibility and preoccupations. It is a universe of dark meanings, hidden relationships and events that are “mired in apprehension and potential danger.” James is also intent on bringing the real world into Austen’s world, mentioning Napoleon and the war with France as well as the new invention known as the water closet. With all the plot’s bleakness, readers will inevitably miss Austen’s amused and sparkling wit, but James is wise enough not to try to duplicate that.

The writer also steers clear of tarnishing the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship. Six years of marriage have, if anything, deepened that love match, and a good thing too. Janeites around the globe would arise in united fury if any novelist, even the illustrious P.D. James, had tried to have it any other way.