P.D. James isn’t someone you’d accuse of being trendy, yet her latest book is a reinterpretation of Jane Austen’s most famous book, Pride and Prejudice. Having been the inspiration for everything from Bridget Jones’s Diary to a Bollywood movie and a book about zombies, Austen, this time, is being redone as a murder mystery.
James, who some would argue is our greatest living mystery writer, claims that the idea to marry two very different genres came quite naturally: Her two great loves in life are writing detective fiction and reading Jane Austen.
Death Comes to Pemberley is named after the grand estate where Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, first fell in love with perhaps the most romantic literary figure of all time: Mr. Darcy. The pair is now happily married, with two children and a third on the way.
On the eve before a grand ball, storm clouds gather. A team of horses gallops madly up the drive, threatening to upturn the carriage they are pulling. Elizabeth’s sister Lydia leaps hysterically from the carriage — her husband, Mr. Wickham, has been murdered! The ball is cancelled, and a murder investigation begins.
I loved the idea of getting another chance to enter Jane Austen’s world, but at the same time I worried. What if James ruined Pride and Prejudice? Luckily, she recreates this world with a masterly touch. It may help that James doesn’t merely set out to continue the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Because this is a murder mystery, she is able to insert a completely different story into their world. Outside the mystery, readers can feel that there is space for their own imaginings as well.
My only minor complaint is that I didn’t find the mystery all that mysterious. The plot and setting of Pride and Prejudice are so familiar that one can easily detect any details made up by James, signalling when something might be amiss. Of course, this might say more about the number of times I’ve read the original than it does about James’ skill.
But there is enough to love in Death Comes to Pemberley that I’d even recommend it to readers who aren’t familiar with Austen. For those of us who are, though, this is a special treat. At the top of her craft, James actually writes much like Austen, while still making the story her own. That’s no easy task. And probably not one most writers, especially at the age of 91, would be brave enough to attempt.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.