Friday, 11 November 2011
Formidable – that’s the best word I can think of to describe PD James. She’s written 19 novels, created the much-loved Inspector Dalgliesh and two years ago hit the headlines when she gave BBC director general Mark Thompson a grilling about the large salaries paid to executives.
She's now 91, yet she still has the capacity to surprise her fans. Instead of producing another Dalgliesh story, her latest novel is a murder mystery set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
James’s new book opens in 1803, six years after Elizabeth Bennet walked down the aisle with Mr Darcy. The couple and their two young sons are happily ensconced at Pemberley, Darcy’s grand country house, and Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley live nearby.
But their blissful idyll is shattered the night before the Pemberley autumn ball, when a horse-drawn coach races down the drive and out tumbles Elizabeth’s drama queen younger sister Lydia. To the Darcys’ horror, she shrieks that her husband has been shot in the woods.
A plot that plunges Elizabeth and Darcy into the midst of a murder investigation might sound preposterous, but James, with her fine writing skills and expert knowledge of Jane Austen’s work, takes the challenge in her stride. The end result is a pacy detective story that displays an eagle eye for period detail (especially when it comes to 19th century forensics).
It’s fascinating to learn, for instance, that 200 years ago detectives couldn’t distinguish one person’s blood from another’s and that night-time autopsies had to be conducted by candlelight.
In her author’s note, James observes that Jane Austen avoided dwelling on “guilt and misery” in her writing and apologises for involving "her beloved Elizabeth” in a crime story.
She adds that if Jane Austen had written this book she would have done it better. I’m not so sure. Death Comes to Pemberley is an elegant and quietly compelling read.
Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (Faber and Faber, £18.99)