It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen fans want her novels to continue, hence the cottage industry of sequels, prequels and re-tellings (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for example) that has developed in recent years.
Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, is the latest entry. Written by acclaimed mystery author P.D. James, the novel picks up a few years after Pride and Prejudice ended. We join the happily married Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, parents to two small boys, as they prepare for an annual ball hosted at Pemberley. They have been joined by Mr. Darcy’s sister, the Bingleys, a young attorney and Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin. As the wind picks up and a storm moves in on the eve of the ball, so does trouble in the form of Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia Wickham. Even more unexpected than her arrival is her news: Wickham has been murdered, and Pemberley’s residents become embroiled in a mystery.
What I Liked
James did an amazing job of recreating Austen’s world (customs, language and the legal system) as well as recreating the characters; it also helped the novel’s believability as a sequel that of the Pride and Prejudice characters present in the novel, only Darcy and Elizabeth were present throughout. In brief scenes, James managed to convey the flavor of Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Wickham and Lydia without exposing a faithful P&P reader to a misstep. She also wisely introduced new characters who had larger roles, so that the focus was carried evenly by the Darcys and the new characters. I also liked that she delved into Darcy’s family tree and fleshed out some of the pressures and history that shaped him into the Darcy we know (and adore!). James also slyly included clever references to characters in Emma and Persuasion that both worked with the plot and added to the novel’s credibility.
What I Didn’t Like
I haven’t read any of James’ mysteries, so I don’t know if this style is typical of her, but a lot of the novel took place in the characters’ thoughts. Yes, there was dialogue, but there was a lot of exposition that seemed excessive. I also thought that she spent too much time explaining plot points from Pride and Prejudice that the reader needed to know in order to understand the plot. I understand that she was trying to make her novel accessible to a reader who hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice or hadn’t read it in a long time, but honestly, if you aren’t a major P&P fan, are you going to read a book that is a sequel to a book you haven’t read? The explanations, though well tied into the story (typically in the character’s thoughts), took up too many pages and couldn’t quite hide that the central mystery was a little thin. The actual mystery and characters’ motivations seemed a bit sensational for Austen’s novels; they seemed a bit closer to Dickens’ novels.
Overall, Death Comes to Pemberley was a fun read. I’ve read other sequels to P&P that were far less competently executed. While I can quibble with the details, overall, James got it right (and she’s almost 92 years old!!). She obviously loves Austen and Pride and Prejudice, and this sequel is one that any Austen-phile can safely pick up and enjoy.