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David Finkle

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Easy Reader: In Death Comes to Pemberley P. D. James Takes on Jane Austen, Sort Of

Posted: 12/20/11 02:28 PM ET

There have to be many armchairs full of us readers who have a big jones for both Jane Austen and P. D. James. Given that, it's merely rhetorical to ask who among us wouldn't drop everything we're diligently paging through and everything else we're doing to tuck into Death Comes to Pemberley (Alfred A. Knopf, 291 pp. $25.95)? In it, P. D. James departs, as she occasionally does, from her contemporary mysteries and Adam Dalgliesh to imagine what might have happened if Jane Austen had involved Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in a post-nuptials murder.

James is hardly the first respected author to go Austen-esque, but as an impeccable stylist and a psychological ins-and-outs maven, she certainly has the wherewithal to conjure with her celebrated predecessor, whereas others who've preceded her may have just had enormous chutzpah.

Oh, yes, it's certainly understandable that we ravenous readers would grab the book. Elizabeth Bennet -- with her prejudices but also her good sense in most matters -- and Fitzwilliam Darcy -- with his pride but also his profoundly decent affect -- sound more than promising as early 19th-century amateur detectives.

In light of that, it's disappointing to report that Death Comes to Pemberley isn't that book. Indeed, it's only a whodunnit in the broadest sense. Perhaps more undermining to James's intentions is that her Elizabeth Bennet is now recovered from her inclinations to prejudice, just as Fitzwilliam Darcy has discovered the errors of his pride. The sparks that flew when they rubbed their verbal comments against each other is missing. Even more of a let-down: Neither of the now extraordinarily happy Darcys is directly involved with exposing the perpetrator of the cruel assault in the literally and figuratively tangled Pemberley woods.

But maybe in declaring my dissatisfaction with the 81-year-old James's newest work, I'm committing a not uncommon reviewer's sin: reviewing the book I think ought to have been written. So while assuming, perhaps rightly, that my reaction reflects the reaction of many Austen and James fans, I'll review the book at hand and start by saying James has mastered the Austen style. She immediately demonstrates her prowess along these lines in the opening chapters when establishing Elizabeth as an entirely thoughtful Pemberley chatelaine and mother of two young boys and Darcy as a devoted, equally thoughtful husband and father.

They rejoice in matrimonial bliss while surrounded by a household of efficient and grateful servants. James's tale, expressed in all the proper period vocabulary, is of contented country living in an England that's now -- as James illustrates in her Dalgliesh books -- greatly transformed. Her picture of rural attitudes blends seamlessly with Austen's.

The Darcys' peaceful world is disturbed, however, when, on the eve of an annual ball named in Darcy's mother's honor, Elizabeth's wayward sister Lydia, though deliberately uninvited to the event, is about to crash in more ways than one. Approaching Pemberley in a vehicle accompanied by her scoundrel husband Wickham, himself persona non grata at the estate, and his friend Denny (there's a coachman called Pratt), Lydia is witness to an argument between the chums that leads to Denny's precipitately quitting the coach. He's quickly followed by a disturbed Wickham.

Within minutes shots are heard, at which point the terrified Lydia commands Pratt to drive immediately to Pemberley. When she gets there to explain what's happened, Darcy instantly organizes a search party that includes his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam and the lawyer Henry Alveston -- both men on the premises in hopes of winning Darcy's sister Georgiana's hand. Before too much time passes the three locate Wickham in the woods. Bent over the dead Denny and with blood-covered hands, he's mindlessly blurting his responsibility for the death.

James's intentions from then on are set. She's after who killed Denny, making it fairly obvious that Wickham was not the person who offed his buddy -- despite the implication of his surname and the wickedness he's already displayed in Austen's novel. To get to the bottom of who actually did the dastardly deed, James scrutinizes characters that include the Bidwell family. They inhabit the only cottage in the woods and are a humble but troubled unit in which daughter Louisa is tending to a newborn of uncertain origin while son Will is slowly dying.

Also crucial to the shady shenanigans is a Mrs. Younge, who Pride and Prejudice devourers may recall as a former governess to Georgiana. She's the one whom Darcy felt compelled to dismiss and whom he subsequently bribed against his better judgment in order to learn the whereabouts of the absconding Wickham and Lydia.

And there are several well-drawn physicians, lawyers, magistrates and a judge on whom the Darcys call for assistance, clarification, courtroom edification and, ultimately, illumination. In addition, Elizabeth's adored sister Jane Bennet, now Jane Bingley, appears with her husband, and Elizabeth's beloved father, Mr. Bennet, visits occasionally to avail himself of the Pemberley library. Sorry to report that the deliciously rowdy Mrs. Bennet is kept at a distance -- and missed, for all that.

As Dame James has read her P&P with insight, her depictions of the characters honor them. Yet, possibly in deference to period manners, the homage makes for one of her milder exercises. As a result, however satisfying readers regard the narrative knottings and unknottings. an Elizabeth Bennet relegated to being a secondary figure isn't likely to register as excessively pleasing. Though Darcy figures far more than his bride in the proceedings and remains heroic in scope, that doesn't much bolster the pay-off either. The wrinkle-free Elizabeth and Darcy personalities may be a boon for them as master and mistress of Pemberley but not necessarily for any of us reading about them.