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Review: In ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ a brisk mystery in Austen-land

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

That Jane Austen failed to write a murder-mystery sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” was an oversight remedied in 2011 by P.D. James with her novel “Death Comes to Pemberley.” Like “P&P” and many other Austens before it — and many of James’ own works, for that matter — that book has been adapted for television. Making its American debut Sunday via the PBS series “Masterpiece Mystery,” 201 years after Elizabeth Bennet finally said yes to Mr. Darcy, it’s a highly satisfying riff on the original work, as well as a credit to the modern British costume drama.

Pemberley, of course, is the estate of which Elizabeth Bennet became mistress in the last pages of Austen’s 1813 original. As James picks up the tale, six years have passed; there’s a little Darcy running through the manorial halls; big Darcy (Matthew Rhys, of “The Americans”) is less forbidding than before; and Lizzie (the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin, from “The Bletchley Circle”) is as smart and lively, ironical and serious as ever.

The honeymoon is clearly not over. And a ball is about to be thrown.

In a trice — a trice and a half at the most — other familiar characters appear.

Darcy’s sister Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson) is living at Pemberley, as Austen left her. She’s the focus of the new story’s romantic business, which comes with the old questions of the right sort of wrong people and the wrong sort of right people.

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Also present are Lizzie’s parents (James Fleet and Rebecca Front) and her sisters Jane (Alexandra Moen), now Mrs. Bingley, and Lydia (Jenna Coleman, moonlighting from “Doctor Who”), still Mrs. Wickham. (Sisters Mary and Kitty, the bookish one and the one no one quite remembers, have not been invited to this party, as if to underscore their dispensability.) Even the imperious and interfering Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Penelope Keith) pokes her head in, for a little comic relief.

Not to be too forthcoming, since the title raises the question of who will be dead as well as who might have done it — there is some suspense on that account, at least as I lived the drama — but things happen. Lydia arrives at the door of Pemberley, uninvited, in an all but runaway coach, breathlessly reporting shots in the woods; Wickham (Matthew Goode of “The Good Wife”), even less invited, is brought in not long after, bloody and raving. A magistrate (Trevor Eve), James’ quasi-detective and the official counterpart to Lizzie’s Regency Nancy Drew, is sent for. And we are off into new territory.

James, the creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, is a very different sort of writer from Austen, who more or less created the rom-com. But if she’s transposed Austen into a darker key, “Pride and Prejudice” is, after all, not without its secrets and lies and late-hour revelations — it is a mystery story, in its way. And “Pemberley” observes the happier rites and rituals of the canon: There are music and cards, walks in the woods and trips to the village; Mrs. Bennet remains a flibbertigibbet and Mr. Bennet remains hiding in the library. The added elements of a forensic procedural give the new work a novel twist but don’t mask its essential flavor, like a chocolate cake with chili on top.

What’s more, as adapted by Juliette Towhidi (“Calendar Girls”) and directed by Daniel Percival, “Death Comes to Pemberley” is made of the same physical stuff as other casually sumptuous British costume dramas — coequal in every respect but the source to an adaptation of “Pride of Prejudice,” which one can easily imagine these perfectly cast players playing. (I would like to see that very much.)

Indeed, such productions already seem to inhabit a single, seamless universe: Notwithstanding the changing fashions and modern appliances, there isn’t much distance between “Pemberley” and “Downton Abbey”; were the Dowager Countess to wander in, the Darcys wouldn’t bat an eye — they’d recognize her as kin and offer her some tea, or whatever.

Follow me on Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd

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‘Masterpiece Mystery!: Death Comes to Pemberley’

Where: KOCE and KPBS

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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