Every once in a while, I break out of the 19th century and read something from the 20th century — or, in this case, something actually from the 21st century. I listened once to a BBC radio program on the possibilities of tracking word count as a marker or predictor for dementia. So, people who are interested in this sort of thing performed word count analysis on Agatha Christie — who was suspected of having Alzheimer’s –and she did in fact show a shrinking vocabulary in her later books. P. D. James, on the other hand, shows no such diminution — which is all good because at 92 years old, she channels Jane Austen!
The great thing about Death Comes to Pemberley is that P. D. James knows how to evoke Jane Austen without trying to be Jane Austen. This is Darcy’s book, which perhaps is not too surprising if one remembers that P. D. James never was all that good with her female characters. Thus, Jane is Jane, Lydia is Lydia, but Lizzie is surprisingly stressed and — dare I say it — dispirited. Perhaps I was surprised by the amount of angst displayed by Mr. Darcy — I have always fancied him as someone who makes up his mind and gets on with things. Thus, his persistent questioning of the wisdom of his marriage to the unsuitable Lizzie just doesn’t seem quite in character; after all, they have been happily married for a few years now and have an heir and spare to boot. But I suppose finding your hated brother-in-law hovering over a dead body on your estate might make anyone broody . . . .
Characters aside, the mystery starts out well with Mr Denny dead and Wickham, drunk and covered in blood, lamenting over his dead friend’s body. Unfortunately, the murder plot degenerates and eventually meanders to a close with a cheat of a twist. But, one does not read this book for the mystery, even if “death” is in the title. The mystery might be weak and not up to James’ usual standards, but who cares? I got to revisit Pemberley in the company of a master writer, and along the way, I remember just what it is that Jane Austen fans love about her books.