Death Comes to Pemberley
Not content to leave Jane Austen's iconic romantic couple, Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, to the genre-blurring contemporary steam-punk brigade, the grand dame of crime writing, P.D. James, has penned her own witty sequel to Pride and Prejudice. After apologising to "Jane Austen's shade" for exposing her to "the trauma of a murder investigation", James opens Death Comes to Pemberley with a rundown of the important players and events in Austen's much-loved 1813 original.
That done, James launches into a ripping yarn.
It is 1803. Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years. Tongues have almost stopped wagging about their astonishing match. As custodians of Pemberley, the Darcys have inherited many obligations including hosting the opulent Lady Anne's ball. As the staff polish candlesticks, bake pastries and harvest flowers from the hothouse, Elizabeth is a picture of calmness and order. She loves Pemberley's "famous woodlands" and often gazes out at the trees "hung with the warm golden flags of autumn". But there are other stories about the woods. Locals claim that whenever the ghost of a woman is seen walking there, death is hovering close.
As Elizabeth's day bustles towards its end, all seems to be under control until a carriage appears, careering towards the house through the windy night. Elizabeth watches in silent horror as a "shrieking apparition" tumbles out of the carriage, screaming that her husband has been shot. This "wild creature of the night" turns out to be Lydia, Elizabeth's disgraced sister whose elopement with the serial cad, Mr Wickham, featured prominently in the delicate tangle of class, money, morals and marriage central to Pride and Prejudice.
It's all go from here. Darcy commandeers the reluctant coachman and his spooked horses and sets out to investigate. They are accompanied by Darcy's seemingly troubled cousin Fitzwilliam, and the chirpy George Alveston, a successful London lawyer. To complicate matters, Fitzwilliam and Alveston are both vying for the affections of Darcy's younger sister, Georgiana, who herself was wronged by Mr Wickham.
James clearly relishes diving into Austen's world. Each page is delicately enriched by details of dress, domestic life and injected with stinging social commentary.
Now aged in her 90s, James is the author of a staggering number of bestsellers. A former magistrate, her forensic yet playful analysis of the characters and the pitfalls of the justice system make this an intelligent and entertaining addition to the post-Austen catalogue.
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.
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