Home » criticism, Fiction, it's a mystery

It’s a Mystery: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”

By (January 1, 2012) One Comment

Death Comes to Pemberley

By P.D. James
Knopf, 2011

My very first column for Open Letters Monthly was a review of The Private Patient by P. D. James in November 2008. Thus, it is with great pleasure that I inaugurate the new year with a column on her latest novel, not the least because it brings together Baroness James and Jane Austen, two authors I greatly admire. Death Comes to Pemberley crosses a Jane Austen novel with a complex mystery. It is, on one level, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and on another, a literary thriller. As James noted in a recent interview:

My own feeling about sequels is ambivalent, largely because the greatest writing pleasure for me is in the creation of original characters, and I have never been tempted to take over another writer’s people or world, but I can well understand the attraction of continuing the story of Elizabeth and Darcy. Austen’s characters take such a hold on our imagination that the wish to know more of them is irresistible.

Indeed, in Time to Be in Earnest, her highly selective “autobiography” published in 1999, she wrote:

There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things…. Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious…. I have no intention of lying on a psychiatrist’s couch in an attempt to hear their waking growls. But then I am a writer. We fortunate ones have no need for such an expedient. If, as one psychiatrist wrote ‘creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict’, then I, a purveyor of popular genre fiction, and that great genius Jane Austen, have the same expedient for taming our sleeping tigers.

With Death Comes to Pemberley, it is a truth now universally acknowledged that James and Austen are suspense sisters under the skin. Throughout, James proves herself evermore adept at spinning out those skewering epigrams associated with Austen. She channels quite perfectly the tone of her famous model:

Since even the most fastidious among us can rarely escape hearing salacious local gossip, it is well to enjoy what cannot be avoided.

There are few activities so agreeable as spending a friend’s money to your own satisfaction and his benefit.

She is also having a lot of rather dark fun. Pride and Prejudice meets ‘Clue.’

In the autumn of 1803, six years after the events that closed Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy (the latter nee Elizabeth Bennet) are happily married and the proud parents of two fine sons. As mistress of Pemberley House, Elizabeth is preparing for the annual ball, “regarded by the county as the most important social event of the year.” On the eve of the ball, as the family is enjoying some quiet social interaction, Elizabeth is visited by thoughts of another world outside Pemberley, the world of cruelty and death, the gathering Napoleonic storm. A world, it is important to note, with which Austen deliberately did not deal. Suddenly a coach emerges out of the night, careening drunkenly as it races toward the front doors of Pemberley:

It was too distant for the wheels to be heard and it seemed to Elizabeth that she was seeing a spectral coach of legend flying soundlessly through the moonlit night, the dreaded harbinger of death.

And so the personal nightmare begins.

The Darcy’s find themselves caught up in a brutal murder case complicated by a romantic triangle, a family curse, ghostly apparitions, hidden motives, grim secrets and, not least, the reappearance of their old nemesis, Mr. Wickham. Married to Elizabeth’s sister Lydia—an “irresponsible attachment” from the beginning. James enjoys muddying her Wellies in the Gothic literary terrain that Austen mocked so effectively in her elegant spoof, Northanger Abbey. In James’s words:

… setting, which is important to any work of fiction is particularly so in a crime novel, especially if there is contrast between peace, order and beauty and the contaminating eruption of violent death. This contrast is assured by setting a murder mystery on the grounds of Pemberley, a house that enshrines married happiness.

That said, James ferrets out what lurks in the shadows of Pride and Prejudice: Ruinous matches, early deaths, socially enforced female vulnerability, the Napoleonic wars. There is the bargain, barely hinted at in Austen’s original novel, Darcy made to secure domestic tranquility. A price he pays that it would be unfair to the reader to reveal here. Suffice it to say, this price implicates others he holds close. Austen keeps these shadows at bay. James noses deep into them.

The novel is rich in references from the Austenian landscape. We learn that Wickham was briefly employed by Sir Walter Elliot (see Persuasion). Several characters from Emma provide a solution to the subplot, Harriet Smith a.k.a. Mrs. Robert Martin and Mr. and Mrs. Knightly. It’s a field day for Austen buffs touched by P.D.’s wand: Janeites meet Jamesites (definitely P.D.), as opposed to Jamesians (definitely Henry). Mini aside: Leslie Stephen, eminent literary critic and Virginia Woolf’s father, marveled at what he called “Austenolatry.”

With consummate skill, James illustrates the tension between the conservative, established traditions of Pemberley and the changes issued in with the dynamic 19th century, among them the growing recognition of women’s rights. Mr. Darcy is something of a radical, he’s in favor of them. On a somewhat lighter, but no less pressing note, he even installed a water closet at Pemberley. Said closet is a source of much ribald interest in the neighborhood.

As is her wont, James gives us a wonderful exchange on 19th century forensics between the magistrate, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle and the medical adviser, Dr. Obadiah Belcher. (P.D. does have a way with names). The two are ruminating on the evidence of blood:

“I take it, Belcher, that your clever scientific colleagues have not yet found a way of distinguishing one man’s blood from another’s?”

“I regret not, Sir Selwyn. We do not set out to be gods.”

“Do you not? I am glad to hear it. I rather thought that you did.”

This is especially wonderful because James’s professional background includes firsthand knowledge of forensic science laboratories. And her Death of an Expert Witness (1977) is all about a murder in a forensic science laboratory.

In her author’s note, James apologizes to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation. Especially, as she notes, in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.” She goes on to say that, “No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.”

I think Austen, upon reading Death Comes to Pemberley, would have praised the meticulous plotting and sharp-eyed characterizations and written:

The liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.