Sequels have rarely worked and this novel by P.D. James is no exception. Shashi Deshpande
Few crime writers have achieved the eminence that P.D. James has, both in the quality and the volume of her writing. Unlike most crime writers, she writes good novels, with murder and mystery skillfully woven into them.
In fact, one wonders why her work continues to be regarded as genre writing, for it is as good as, if not better than, much of literary fiction. Though James began with fairly conventional mysteries, her novels soon became more ambitious, embracing different worlds and taking note of the changes around her. Her sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh, an intelligent, sensitive, if slightly melancholy Scotland Yard detective, was in time joined by a competent woman assistant, Kate Miskin. Actually, James had earlier written two novels with an interesting young woman detective, Cordelia Gray; sadly, James never brought her back.
She has also written Innocent Blood, a chilling novel about a past crime and The Children of Men, a futuristic novel. These apart, she has steadily walked on the path reserved for good crime writers and written with greater panache than any other crime novelist, except, perhaps, Dorothy Sayers.
In her last book, The Private Patient, James rewarded Dalgliesh with his love, Emma; there would be, it seemed, no more Dalgliesh novels.
James now returns with Death Comes to Pemberley, a crime novel set in an earlier period, (1803 to be exact) the characters picked up from a book of that time — Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (P&P). James takes up where Austen left off. Elizabeth and Jane are happily married to Darcy and Bingley and live very near each other. There are some surprises: Mary, the priggish Bennet sister, is married, Kitty, the frivolous one, is not. And Lady Catherine, who had said that Elizabeth's family would “pollute the shades of Pemberley”, Darcy's family home, has softened towards her; these characters, however, remain offstage. Mr. Bennet makes a brief appearance, but, apart from the Darcys and Bingleys, only Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy's cousin, play major roles.
The novel begins with the prospect of a ball at Pemberley the next day. The Bingleys have arrived, food is being cooked, flowers arranged, the silver being polished. And then a chaise, lurching and swaying, the horses wild-eyed, out of control, enters Pemberley. A hysterical Lydia, (Elizabeth's sister), falls out of the coach screaming, “Wickham is dead, Denny has shot him.” With this melodrama, the crime writer James enters and takes us through the discovery of the body (Denny's, not Wickham's), the investigation, which make Wickham the chief suspect of his friend's murder, the inquest, which commits Wickham for trial, and then the trial in London. Finally comes the denouement which brings few surprises.
Does this potentially heady combination of Austen and James work? It should, because, despite the centuries that divide the two writers and the totally different genres their works belong to, they have something in common: The unflinching honesty of their gaze and their writing, as well as a belief in a moral world, both within and outside us.
Unfortunately, sequels have rarely worked and this novel is no exception. Trying to write in another writer's style blocks creativity and spontaneity and makes for a lifeless reproduction; the characters become puppets and neither the story nor the characters come to life.
Of course, this is a crime novel and James does try to invoke an atmosphere of horror and evil. But both the evil and the horror seem too nebulous to be real. Ironically, Austen herself portrayed an evil woman with great skill in Lady Susan, whereas the crime writer James does better when she makes Darcy and Elizabeth introspect with painful honesty. Elizabeth asks herself, “Would I have married Darcy if he had not been rich?” For Darcy, who has great pride in his family, the murder and Wickham's involvement bring on the anguished thought: It was I who brought Wickham into the family by marrying Elizabeth. And yet, he thinks, he “would not regret his marriage; it would have been like regretting that he himself had ever been born”. The love between Elizabeth and Darcy is thus triumphantly reaffirmed; theirs is a good marriage. Yet, one has a sense of James foisting a mystery on characters not her own. Belonging, in fact, to an author who had declared, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.”
There are also minor irritants to cavil at, like, if the story of P&P has to be told, (for those benighted unfortunates who have not read it), why is it done with so much dreary repetition?
The moral of this novel clearly is: Never write a novel with borrowed characters. Or, as Jane Austen said, “I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way …”