Monday, January 2, 2012
Review: DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY by P.D. James
I dislike beginning my New Year's reviewing on a downer, but what the heck. Normally, as you may know, I don't bother posting reviews of books that disappoint me simply because I rarely finish them.
Also, I'm a big exponent of Emerson's brilliant dictum: No two people read the same book.
But I did finish DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY, plugging along, hoping, until the end, for the best.
The unpleasant truth: this was one of two major reading disappointmens of 2011. (The other was WICKED AUTUMN by G.M. Malliet, another book I'd been expecting to love and a book about which the less said, the better.)
I'd been eager to read DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY since I learned that the legendary P.D. James, (the very respected British author of the Adam Dalgliesh books and a lifelong fan of Austen) had decided to write a mystery involving Jane Austen's characters from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.(My favorite book of all time.) I thought: if anyone can do it, it's P.D. James.
I was thrilled when Santa was good enough to bring me DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY for Christmas.
I sat down to read, expecting to be astonished. (I always expect any book I pick up to astonish me. Hope springs eternal.)
But almost from the beginning, I spotted trouble in the making. Part of the problem with picking up where a brilliant author leaves off and adding yourself and your own ideas to the mix, is that big bugaboo: exposition.
There's a need to explain who everyone is, how they're related, what their previous relationships were, what happened and why and so on and so on.
The problem is, if you've read the original book, you already know all this. (If you haven't read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, you would be coming to James' book expecting just to read a good historical mystery or perhaps, let's face it, you might not be wanting to read this pastiche at all.) There is no real reason for the long-winded, explanatory set-up that begins the book.
I say: trust the reader who hasn't read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, to catch up. Trust the rest of us who know these characters very well and are eager to visit with them again, to understand what the previous and current relationships were/are. A little background exposition is all right, but not the sort of thing that calls a halt to the book almost before it begins.
Once the actual mystery is under way, it begins with a bang. Fabulous introduction of sister Lydia showing up at Pemberley (on the eve of an annual Ball) in a fast moving carriage that practically careens down the driveway of the house. Aha! Hysteria, screeching, screaming. Typical Lydia. Is Wickham dead? Has he been foully murdered?
Honestly, I can't understand all the positive reviews of this book - even from the NY Times. All I can think is that nobody wants to insult 91 year old P.D. James who, very likely, would have had second thoughts about this manuscript if she'd been younger.
How to say this? DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY is boring. After the initial set-up which presages a fabulously devious mystery, it all becomes mired in unnecessarily somber details and plodding plot devices which don't really do much to energize the story. A kind of inertia settles in. An inertia from which, unless something happens to shake up the piece, few mysteries recover. I kept waiting for something wonderful to happen, but it never did.
The denouement when it FINALLY comes, is out of the blue and kind of - huh?
More like an imitation Wilkie Collins plot than an Austen pastiche, DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY lacks the dramatic excitement that Collins infused into his wickedly cunning stories. (This is not an original thought. Another reviewer noticed the similarity to Collins as well. Can't remember who.)
Another thing: James concentrates mostly on Darcy throughout the tale and leaves Elizabeth in the background. Now, you know, from reading P&P, what a lively, intelligent young woman Lizzie could be. But not here. Here she is almost unrecognizable. Just a dull shade of her former self, lingering in the background - hemmed in, supposedly, by the awesome responsibility that is Pemberley.
I did like one James invention, that of a Darcy relation who fashioned his own slightly bizarre way of dealing with the Pemberley responsibility. I'd reather have read his story.
In writing style, James' book really more resembles Wilkie Collins than Jane Austen, but kind of dumbed down in order, I suppose, to have a more universal appeal. I kept thinking, 'this reads like any other author wanting to tell this sort of tale.' There's nothing special about it.
It's not a bad book, it's just a dull one.
The biggest crime against Austen: there is no wit here.
Anything can be made to work with a good soupcon of wit. But this take on Austen and her immortal characters has, not only no wit, it has very little lifeblood to resurrect it from the graveyard of dozens of other Austen imitations other writers have fashioned over the years.
If you really want to read an Austen pastiche that works remarkably well, I say, forget this one and read Lynn Shepherd's MURDER AT MANSFIELD PARK. I read and enjoyed this in 2010 and recommend it.