The novels of Jane Austen have much in common with traditional detective fiction. It is an affinity that P. D. James has herself explored, notably in her essay ‘Emma Considered as a Detective Story’, which she included as an appendix to her memoir, Time to Be in Earnest. Both types of fiction operate within enclosed and carefully structured worlds; both depend for their plots on a threat to the established order; and both conclude with tidy resolutions that contain an implicit promise that a happy, orderly existence now lies ahead.
Death Comes to Pemberley combines these two traditions in a whodunnit set mainly at Mr Darcy’s stately home in Derbyshire, six years after his marriage to Elizabeth Bennet at the end of Pride and Prejudice. The year is 1803. The Darcys are now the proud parents of two strapping boys. Elizabeth’s favourite sister, Jane, lives nearby with their children. Even Mary, the studious sister, has found a suitable husband in Mr Bingley’s parson. Colonel Fitzwilliam, now the heir presumptive to his father’s earldom and grown rather serious, hankers after Darcy’s sister, the lovely Georgiana. But she shows unmistakable signs of interest in Mr Alveston, a poor but promising young lawyer who will one day inherit a barony.
There’s trouble in paradise. On the evening before Pemberley’s annual ball, Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth’s flighty younger sister, rattles up the drive in a hired chaise. She tumbles out in a state of collapse, shrieking that her husband has been murdered. A murder has indeed been committed in the grounds. Wickham, far from being the victim, appears to be the perpetrator.
This provides the starting point for a leisurely narrative that mimics the conventions of the traditional detective story. A local magistrate, no friend to the Darcys, leads the murder investigation and plays bad cop. There are rustic police officers under another name, a mortuary van, a local physician who stands in for a forensic expert, mushrooming subplots, much talk of rigor mortis and even a ‘prime suspect’ among a multitude of lesser ones. All this builds to a courtroom denouement and several twists in the tail. During the tidying up in the last few pages, there’s even a tantalisingly brief glimpse of Highbury and the characters of Emma.
It’s clear that James’s tongue is firmly in her cheek. She does not intend us to take the historical context any more seriously than the whodunnit. The novel is as much a homage to the Golden Age detective story as it is to Jane Austen. Even Pemberley itself, with its new-fangled water-closet and the pictures of shooting parties in the gunroom, seems more at home in the early 20th century than 100 years earlier.
All this is pleasantly diverting. The most interesting part of the novel, however, is the sense it gives of James, as a novelist, interrogating Jane Austen and her characters. She is a very shrewd reader indeed — for example, her analysis of Charlotte Lucas’s hidden influence on Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship is masterly. At an earlier point, she skewers the latter’s unsentimental motivation in a few words — ‘Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.’ Jane Austen herself would have applauded.