An old favorite in new hands
For me, the mark of a great book is that I don’t want it to end. When the number of pages in my right hand dwindles down to nothing and I just want one more page, one more line so I can stay in the book’s world, I know I’ve found a favorite. Sometimes the author obliges and writes a sequel or spins a minor character off into his or her own story. Sometimes other authors jump in and try their hand at a well-loved fictional world.
Most recently P. D. James has extended the lives of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley. I had wanted to read P. D. James for a while, her covers are beautiful, especially for mysteries, and I was impressed at how long she has been writing (over 50 years, she’s 91). When I saw that her newest mystery would give me another look into the characters of Pride and Prejudice I was hooked. I love a good mystery and it would be nice to read a new book instead of just rereading an old classic, something I think I do too much. I’m a big fan of rereading my favorite books instead of putting the effort into a new book. There is something comforting about knowing what happens next and immersing yourself in characters you have already grown to love. I think this is why so many authors venture into the creations of classic writers. While Ms. James doesn’t need to use Jane Austen’s characters to garner book sales, she knows people will be excited to pick up a book they already know a little bit about. Human beings like to stay in their comfort zone and it’s nothing if not good business sense to take advantage of that fact.
Ms. James did her research; it was obvious that she knew the story of Pride and Prejudice well enough to give the characters rich backstories beyond what Jane Austen showed us in the original novel. James even wrote a small apology to Jane Austen in the beginning of the mystery acknowledging that Ms. Austen would never have dealt with such an unsavory act as murder and begged permission to put her characters into a story that may not have a happy ending. She also painted a detailed picture of the English court system of the 1800s. While her grasp of how the law worked in those days is admirable I found the repetition of the witnesses a little tedious. One of the pluses of reading a book is that when you have already been given information that a character doesn’t know, you can be saved reading it all in detail again. Maybe James gave new small clues in each recounting of the night of the murder, but my brain glazed over a bit and I admit that I started to skim the recitations of the different witnesses.
I also figured out whodunit before I was told, which disappointed me. I’m not one of those people who try to put together all the clues in a mystery and guess at who committed the crime at hand. I prefer to let the author unfold the story in his or her own time and get a surprise at the outcome. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Elizabeth and Darcy’s lives are interrupted (about six years after the end of Pride and Prejudice) the night before a grand ball is to be hosted in their home. Wickham appears to have murdered his good friend Denny during an argument in the woods outside Pemberley. Darcy is forced to deal with Wickham in a way he never planned: Does he hope for a guilty verdict which would wipe Wickham from his life forever or does he hold out for innocence, secure in the knowledge that, while Wickham has done plenty of awful deeds, murder could not be one of them? The insights into Darcy’s thoughts and life hold true to Austen’s work. He is a strong man, beloved by his wife and sister, less inclined to jump to conclusions than he once was.
James weaves in the plot of Pride and Prejudice for those sad few who have yet to read the classic. She gives it a beautiful twist as well, giving those mothers and daughters left behind in Meryton some not-so-nice things to say about the fact that Elizabeth must have married for money alone since she professed such utter distain for her eventual husband. Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte is well thought out too, living in a mediocre marriage and dealing with her husband, Mr. Collins, as one would with an errant puppy. I loved to see how these characters had lived since I met them last. James’ love for Austen is apparent in every phrase. She has extended a beautiful story into something new while respecting the old. I would love to see what other adventures the characters could have in James’ capable hands.