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Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James

A review by Laurel Ann Nattress

I consider it more than a bit perplexing when an author begins their book with an apology. In this case, it is to author Jane Austen for using her characters. Since Death Comes to Pemberley is a sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is like apologizing for snow being cold. If you are going to write a sequel to a classic of world literature, it is, what it is. Don’t apologize for it. It really puts me off my reading game from the get go.

Okay, I got that off my chest, so now on to more pleasant topics – the fact that the venerable mystery writer P. D. James has taken up her pen inspired by my, and her, favorite author and whipped up a murder mystery for me to devour is delightful. What Janeite in their right mind is not salivating at the thought of an Austen sequel written by such an acclaimed and exalted author? Just the thought of Austen and mystery in one sentence pushes me into the giddy zone. To say that my “wishes and hopes might be fixed” in anticipation is an understatement.

It is six years since the happy day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters in marriage: Jane to Charles Bingley and Elizabeth to Fitzwilliam Darcy. Both sisters and their husbands are at Pemberley, the palatial country estate of the Darcys in Derbyshire, whose grandeur is only equal to the ten thousand a year that it generates for its previously haughty master and decidedly opinionated mistress. Elizabeth has settled in as chatelaine to a large estate and mother to two young sons. Life is orderly and good at Pemberley, as long as one stays out of the haunted woodland.

Darcy’s younger, and still unmarried, sister Georgiana is also in residence being courted by two beaux: her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, and the young, ambitious, but dishy attorney, Henry Alveston. All have gathered for Lady Anne’s ball, an annual event in honor of Mr. Darcy’s deceased mother’s birthday. Many county families will be in attendance. On the eve of the grand event Mrs. Reynolds the housekeeper and the staff are busy preparing for the large formal gathering while the family dine and later meet in the music room. It is a windy, moonlit night, but Colonel Fitzwilliam takes his leave for his nightly exercise, a ride along the river. Later, many have said their goodnights and departed when Darcy is surprised by the sight of a carriage careening at full speed down the woodland road to Pemberley. The coach abruptly arrives depositing a frantic Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth’s unruly younger sister on the doorstep. She is hysterical, shrieking, “Wickham’s dead. Denny has shot him!”

The Wickhams had been traveling to Pemberley with friend Captain Denny by carriage. Even though Mr. Wickham would never be admitted to Pemberley because of his past indiscretion with Georgiana, Lydia, uninvited, had still planned to crash the party. Wickham and Denny had quarreled while traveling through the woodland, departed from the carriage, and gun shots heard soon after. Off into the haunted woods go the search party of Darcy, Alveston and Col. Fitzwilliam to discover a body in the woodland that Lydia is certain is her husband.

And now the glade was before them. Passing slowly, almost in awe, between two of the slender trunks, they stood as if physically rooted, speechless with horror. Before them, it stark colours a brutal contrast to the muted light, was a tableau of death. No one spoke. They moved slowly forward as one, all three holding their lanterns high; their strong beams, outshining the gentle radiance of the moon, intensified the bright red of the officer’s tunic and the ghastly blood-smeared face and mad glaring eyes turned toward them. p. 65

A murder in the haunted woodland. The investigation begins. The body is removed to Pemberley. Mr. Darcy notifies the local magistrate, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, who arrives to conduct the inquiries. Darcy, Elizabeth, Jane and Bingley are all distraught by the shocking death. The staff is terrified that the curse of the Darcys continues in the haunted woodland. Lydia is hysterical. Lady Anne’s ball is canceled. The official inquest begins. Why did Colonel Fitzwilliam leave Pemberley to ride in terrible weather so late at night? What is the secret behind the Bidwell family who lives in the woodland cottage where Darcy’s great-grandfather committed suicide? Who, or what, is the shrouded figure who haunts the woodland? What is the motive for murder?

We are happily reunited with many of the characters from the beloved original novel and deposited at Pemberley, quite possibly the pinnacle of the Janeite world. Real comfort food for Austen fans. The first twenty page of the prologue recap the plot and details in Pride and Prejudice. Was this for the benefit of her mystery readers who have not read P&P? If so, the same effect could have been achieved by working it into the narrative in a more creative way. James continues building the mystery slowly by adding in elements of the haunted woodland, the curse, and the ghostly figures reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairytale. The plot ponders along with occasional bits of excitement from that evergreen drama queen, Lydia Wickham, nee Bennet, whose character she hits spot on. Another character who she develops interestingly is Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was the second son of an earl in Pride and Prejudice, and we all know that second sons must make their own way in the world. He chose the army. His life changes drastically, and his personality, when his brother dies and he becomes heir to a grand estate. He courts Georgiana, but don’t look for much romance in this novel. It is a mystery and her romantic triangle is second fiddle to the murder investigation. Darcy and Elizabeth are, well, an old married couple and not as interesting as the proud and prejudiced characters that Jane Austen presented. I missed their witty banter.

For Austen fans this will be an enjoyable, is somewhat ponderous, read if you overlook some of the annoying errors in continuity, and for mystery enthusiasts, James does spin a clever tale with a surprise ending that comes out of nowhere. Combined, the Austen and mystery elements do not play out to their potential. None-the-less, it is still an interesting read that has wrangled its way up the bestseller lists. That is an incredible achievement and great proof that the Austen brand continues to grow.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0307959850

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A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the author/editor of Austenprose.com a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the PBS blog Remotely Connected and the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. Classically trained as a landscape designer at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, she has also worked in marketing for a Grand Opera company and at present she delights in introducing neophytes to the charms of Miss Austen’s prose as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington where it rains a lot. Visit Laurel Ann at her blog Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

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Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron: A Review

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron: Being a Jane Austen Mystery
By Stephanie Barron

A Review by Laurel Ann Nattress
One thinks of Jane Austen as a retiring spinster who writes secretly, prefers her privacy and enjoys quiet walks in the Hampshire countryside. Instead, she has applied her intuitive skills of astute observation and deductive reasoning to solve crime in Stephanie Barron’s Austen inspired mystery series. It is an ingenious paradox that would make even Gilbert and Sullivan green with envy. The perfect pairing of the unlikely with the obvious that happens occasionally in great fiction by authors clever enough to pick up on the connection and run with it.

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron marks Stephanie Barron’s tenth novel in the best-selling Jane Austen Mystery series. For fourteen years, and to much acclaim, she has channeled our Jane beyond her quiet family circle into sleuthing adventures with lords, ladies and murderers. Cleverly crafted, this historical detective series incorporates actual events from Jane Austen’s life with historical facts from her time all woven together into mysteries that of course, only our brilliant Jane can solve.

It is the spring of 1813. Jane is home at Chawton Cottage “pondering the thorny question of Henry Crawford” in her new novel Mansfield Park and glowing in the recent favorable reception of Pride and Prejudice. Bad news calls her to London where her brother Henry’s wife Eliza, the Comtesse de Feuillde, is gravely ill. With her passing, Jane and Henry decide to seek the solace and restorative powers of the seaside selecting Brighton, “the most breathtaking and outrageous resort of the present age” for a holiday excursion.

At a coaching Inn along the way they rescue Catherine Twining, a young society Miss found bound and gagged in the coach of George Gordon, the 6th Baron of Byron, aka Lord Byron, the notorious mad, bad and dangerous to know poet. Miffed by their thwart of her abduction, Byron regretfully surrenders his prize to Jane and Henry who return her to her father, General Twining, in Brighton. He is furious and quick to fault his fifteen year-old daughter. Jane and Henry are appalled at his temper and concerned for her welfare.

Settled into a suite of rooms at the luxurious Castle Inn, Jane and Henry enjoy walks on the Promenade, fine dining on lobster patties and champagne at Donaldson’s and a trip to the local circulating library where Jane is curious to see how often the “Fashionables of Brighton” solicit the privilege of reading Pride and Prejudice! Even though Jane loathes the dissipated Prince Regent, she and Henry attend a party at his opulent home the Marine Pavilion. In the crush of the soirée, Jane again rescues Miss Twining from another seducer.

Later at an Assembly dance attended by much of Brighton’s bon ton, Lord Byron reappears stalked by his spurned amour, “the mad as Bedlam” Lady Caroline Lamb. Even though the room is filled with beautiful ladies he only has eyes for Miss Twining and aggressively pursues her. The next morning, Jane and Henry are shocked to learn that the lifeless body of a young lady found in Byron’s bed was their naïve new friend Miss Catherine Twining! The facts against Byron are very incriminating. Curiously, the intemperate poet is nowhere to be found and all of Brighton ready to condemn him.

 

‘Henry grasped my arm and turned me firmly back along the way we had come. “Jane,” he said bracingly, “we require a revival of your formidable spirit – one I have not seen in nearly two years. You must take up the role of Divine Fury. You must penetrate this killer’s motives, and expose him to the world.”’ [page 119]

And so the game is afoot and the investigation begins…

It is great to have Jane Austen, Detective back on the case and in peak form. Fans of the series will be captivated by her skill at unraveling the crime, and the unindoctrinated totally charmed. The mystery was detailed and quite intriguing, swimming in red herrings and gossipy supposition. Pairing the nefarious Lord Byron with our impertinent parson’s daughter was just so delightfully “sick and wicked.” Their scenes together were the most memorable and I was pleased to see our outspoken Jane give as good as she got, and then some. Readers who enjoy a good parody and want to take this couple one step further should investigate their vampire version in Jane Bites Back.

Barron continues to prove that she is an Incomparable, the most accomplished writer in the genre today rivaling Georgette Heyer in Regency history and Austen in her own backyard. Happily readers will not have to wait another four years for the next novel in the series. Bantam is publishing Jane and the Canterbury Tale next year with a firm commitment of more to follow. Huzzah!

Publisher:Bantam Books (2010)
Trade paperback
(352) pages
ISBN:
978-0553386707


 

A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the editor of Austenprose.com and the forthcoming short story anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It to be released by Ballantine Books in October, 2011. Classically trained as a landscape designer at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, she has also worked in marketing for a Grand Opera company and at present delights in introducing neophytes to the charms of Miss Austen’s prose as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives near Seattle, Washington where it rains a lot.

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