Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Death Comes To Pemberley by P. D. James – but doesn’t leave much of an impression

The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery, Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth’s happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball. The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered.

What, I thought, could be better? Jane Austen and crime – two of my favourite types of reading in one book, written by a bestselling crime author and Austen fan, to boot. Perfect indeed.

Well, only sort of, I fear. The idea is perfection but the execution is sadly not. There’s a deep mismatch somehow between James’ writing skills and those of Austen, where something vital goes missing in the blend. The effect of this is to make the narrative style both dull and clunky, and the sheer energy and life inherent in Austen’s prose is therefore on the whole sadly lacking. At key points in the story, I was struggling to carry on, and I kept getting a headache as a result. Not a great reading position to be in.

The issues that troubled me included: Elizabeth not being given much page time at all as the main focus and viewpoint was always Darcy; the long drawn-out courtroom scenes which were just too long to maintain any interest (unless of course you have a serious obsession about historical court scenes); the deus ex machina ending; the lack of solid relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth (and moreover I was puzzled to know if either of them would have even recognised their two sons if they’d ever left the nursery); the equally sad lack of any kind of social satire, sigh.

On the other hand, issues which delighted me (some for the right reasons and some – probably – for the wrong ones) were: the dark shadows of the society they lived in, which even affected the lives of close friends and relatives; the continuing story of Wickham with whom I actually had a lot of sympathy, as everyone else was just so priggish; the unexpected focus on Darcy (though – see above – he is a bit dull here and doesn’t say much of import at all); the charm of discovering what happened to characters from Austen’s other books and how they fit in with Pemberley; and the incredibly lovely and lively portrait of Mr Bennett whom I desperately wanted much much more of. Bliss. Here is the pitch-perfect Mr Bennett arriving to comfort the family in their woes:

“I hired a chaise. That is not the most comfortable way to travel far and I had it in mind to come by coach. Mrs Bennett, however, complained that she needs it to convey the most recent news of Wickham’s unfortunate situation to Mrs Philips, the Lucases and the many other interested parties in Meryton. To use a hack-chaise would be demeaning, not only to her but to the whole family. Having proposed to abandon her at this distressing time I could not deprive her of a more valued comfort; Mrs Bennett has the coach … Lydia’s husband seems to have distinguished himself by this latest exploit in managing to combine entertainment for the masses with the maximum embarrassment for his family.”

Wonderful stuff and surely the only part of this book which captures the spirit of Austen and probably the only part worth quoting – now if only we had far more of Mr Bennett and much less of Mr Darcy, all would have been well, I suspect.

However I really don’t think the issues delighting me added up to any kind of novel you’d want to read unless you’re an utterly die-hard fan of either author, and this would have been far better as a short story. Now that might have been interesting …

Death Comes to Pemberley, Faber and Faber 2011. ISBN: 978 0 571 28357 6
Also available as an ebook

[Anne is a long-term admirer of all Austen’s work. Indeed her gay social comedy, The Hit List, is her own particular offbeat homage to Austen’s Emma and Persuasion]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

14 comments on “Death Comes To Pemberley by P. D. James – but doesn’t leave much of an impression

  1. kateinbrussels
    April 26, 2012

    She is so hard to copy. The best thing is not to copy her at all, just use what she created. I really like T H White’s Darkness at Pemberley (1936?), which uses Pemberley as the location for a chilling detenctive novel/thriller, but has barely a mention of Jane. But the Darcy family are active in the plot throughout, and their ancestors would have approved of them.

  2. annebrooke
    April 26, 2012

    Now that sounds an interesting book, thanks, Kate! I will go and look it up at once 🙂

  3. Chris Harding
    April 26, 2012

    This one seems to be a bit like Marmite – people either love it or hate it. I think I’ll give it a miss.

  4. annebrooke
    April 26, 2012

    I think you’re right – a Marmite novel sums it up perfectly. I don’t like Marmite either! 🙂

  5. rosythornton
    April 26, 2012

    Great review. Like you, Ann, I love James’s crime fiction, and am a huge fan, as well as an Austen freak – and even, usually, a shamefully uncritical Jane Austen ‘sequel’ freak – so I was this book’s prime audience. I did enjoy it – it held my interest to the end, anyway. But it was ultimately disappointing. There was no discernible attempt to develop further the characters and relationships of the original book. (I could scarcely recognise Colonel Fitzwilliam at all – whom I loved in P&P.) There were a few brilliantly Austenesque one liners in the early chapters but even these seemed to peter out as the book wore on, and the murder mystery was thin and unconvincing. Such a shame, as I was disposed to love it.

  6. annebrooke
    April 26, 2012

    I think you’re far more generous-spirited than I am, Rosy! ‘Twas ever thus … But I do agree that things just petered out after the early chapters and it became like trudging through setting concrete … I really wanted to love it but … um … didn’t! 🙂


  7. Fiona Glass
    April 26, 2012

    What a shame – it sounds like a fantastic opportunity wasted. Perhaps in hindsight it would have worked better to use Jane’s characters without trying to re-create her writing style…

  8. annebrooke
    April 26, 2012

    My thoughts exactly, Fiona …


  9. I’ve heard similar comments about this book from other bloggers – which is too bad as there was so much hype around it. But Austen is a hard act to follow.

    LOL @ “serious obsession with historical court scenes”. These are the people who enjoy watching Parliament debates, I imagine.

  10. annebrooke
    April 26, 2012

    Very true, Farah – and yes, there is a parliament TV channel – so I really shouldn’t criticise!! 🙂

  11. Jackie
    April 26, 2012

    Oh my, what a let down! I like James’ mysteries, so I had higher expectations. Maybe a novella would’ve been better, then there wouldn’t have been room for dull court room scenes? But there are so many other problems, too, as you say, so maybe length is not the cure? I think I’ll avoid this one, though it pains me to say it.

  12. annebrooke
    April 26, 2012

    Something shorter would definitely have been sweeter, Jackie, though I suspect it would probably never have worked …

  13. Mimi
    April 26, 2012

    I felt the same way, it was our Book Club book a few months ago, and I was excited to read it. I’ve wanted to read James, I like Pride and Prejudice, it seemed brilliant.
    However, sadly, I found that the death that came to Pemberley was the soulless death of plot and characters. I also really disliked the fact that half of the book was a retelling of P&P, and that Mr. Darcy was boring.

  14. annebrooke
    April 27, 2012

    Exactly how I felt, Mimi – sorry we’ve both had to go through the agony!


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