Distinguished British crime writer P D James writes a crime novel that is a departure from her usual style and does not feature her famous detective Adam Dalgleish.Taking Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a starting point, she offers us a sequel by making murder a wicked intrusion into Austen' s more usual world of gossip, husband hunting, and preparing for the next seasonal society ball.It occurs in the woodlands near Pemberley, the property owned by Mr Darcy, now married for several years to Elizabeth Bennett,the central character of Austen's original novel.
The night of a long planned ball at Pemberley is interrupted by the dramatic arrival of uninvited sister Lydia, who having eloped with the handsome cad Wickham, is now in a hysterical state, claiming that she has heard gun shots from the area of the woods near where her now husband Wickham had recently abandoned her in the carriage in the dark. Darcy and others, investigating the woods find a body, together with a drunken Wickham claiming he is responsible for a friend's death.The ambiguous nature of Wickhams words make him the prime suspect, and despite his now dislike of Wickham,Darcy resents being forced into becoming a potential prosecution witness against his former friend.
This is an amusing novel with most appeal to fans of Pride and Prejudice. P.DJames is careful not to steer the beloved main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy too far away from their original characterizations, and familiar characters such as the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Bennett also make cameo appearances.A romantic sub plot involves Darcy's sister Georgiana's relationship with a young lawyer, and questions about his true intentions and suitability are naturally raised.
The bulk of the action here revolves around new characters,or minor characters from the original now at the centre of events,with Elizabeth and Darcy mainly confined to the role of the observers for most of the book.In true Austen style most of the real dramatic events occur off stage, and are reported to the Darcys along with the reader second hand.
The author ably recreates the authentic setting of Pemberley but much of the historical detail along with the references to other original characters would seem to be largely irrelevant for the resolution of the mystery,or in murder mystery terms are simply elaborate red herrings to baffle the reader.The best parts of the novel involve scenes at a coronial enquiry, and in a London courtroom, with new characters that are allowed to briefly grip our attention before unfortunately disappearing from the rest of the story. Since the author rightly did not want to tamper too much with Austen's original characterisations,there is not much new to be learnt about any of them, and this seems to limit the narrative in some respects.
In this regard, the book was slightly disappointing, with the denouement of its rather minor murder mystery relying too heavily on one or two characters concealing information, that if revealed at the beginning would have destroyed the plot. With the lengthy exposition at the beginning involving a recap of the original novel, and the events leading up to Elizabeth and Darcy's all important Ball while essential to understanding what happens later,is just starting to become tedious for the reader.when the proceedings are interrupted by the dramatic arrival of Lydia's carriage, a welcome Gothic diversion into the world of Jane Austen,just in time.
Fanatical admirers of Jane Austen may well adore all this,while those readers like me who find Austen clever and witty in moderation, can take her or leave her a good deal of the time. This was my similar reaction to this would be sequel to a literary classic.For comparison read Austen's own attempt at a Gothic novel,Northanger Abbey.