Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

Like so many other PD James/Jane Austen fans, I opened this book with tremendously high expectations. In the middle of reading it, I found myself calling my mother to complain that I was bored.

I’ve done quite a bit of reflecting on why this book was so disappointing for me. PD James is a phenomenal mystery writer, and if anyone could write an intriguing mystery set at Pemberley it ought to be her.

Here’s what I’ve decided. Having discovered the great thumping mystery of a murdered man in the woods, Darcy’s first act is to ride off into the dark and stormy night to … wait for it … recuse himself from the investigation. This is the right and honorable thing to do of course, but PD James’ decision to then keep the story at Pemberley with the Darcys and away from the investigation means that we are treated to a novel full of narrative exposition about the Darcys’ life at Pemberley, process talk about the judicial system of the time, and relatively little action.

We miss out on the investigation and instead witness the trial with its dramatic conclusion, which must seem magical to us as the discovery of the exculpatory evidence was made by another set of characters entirely off screen.

In sticking so closely to the Darcys, PD James may have remained faithful to the conventions of Pride & Prejudice fan fiction, but she has missed out on the heart of her story. There is some interest in watching the Pride & Prejudice cast react to the stress of being the main witnesses in a scandalous murder trial, but not as much as there might have been in watching a set of contemporaries (imagined and realized as only PD James can) interact with the Darcys, Bingleys, Wickhams, and Colonel Fitzwilliam during the course of what must have been a delicate investigation with potentially significant social ramifications.

I’ve been asked whether I’d recommend this book to others or not. I think one of my fellow reviewers on Goodreads has gotten this right. Read the first few chapters of it. If you’re enjoying it, keep going. You’re in good hands. If you’re not, then pick up something more to your taste.

Have you read Death Comes to Pemberley? If so, what did you think of it?

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

  1. Mary McConnell says:

    When you mentioned your JA obsession I immediately thought of this book which I was reading at the same time. I too was thrilled at first to be back in the JA world, but as you about half way through it went flat, and she seemed to have focused on solving small conundrums from the previous book, rather than giving us “a good read.”

    • Shala Howell says:

      I’ve also wondered whether part of the problem is that PD James couldn’t forget that she was writing about another writer’s characters. She is so respectful of the P&P cast at times and so very careful about tone that it feels like the story is never truly her own.

  2. Pingback: Review: Death Comes to Pemberly « Ribbons of Romance

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