Monday, June 10, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'Death Comes to Pemberley'

The Book: Death Comes to Pemberley

The Author: P. D. James

How I Found It: I heard much of this book when it first came out, and none of it really positive, from my Janeite book-blogging friends who read it. However, my "twin" Tori liked it well enough, and I decided to give the book a shot when a BBC miniseries adaptation was announced. The three principals were announced this weekend (Matthew Rhys as Darcy, Anna Maxwell Martin as Lizzy, and Matthew Goode as Wickham). My thanks to my local library!

The Review: It's been six years since the events of Pride and Prejudice, and the Darcy and Bingley families are happily settled spouses and parents. Pemberley in particular is busy, as preparations for the annual ball held in honor of Darcy's late mother are in full swing. It's an event highly anticipated by the people of Pemberley village and Pemberley's own residents, but a pall is quickly cast over the forthcoming celebrations when Lydia Wickham (née Bennet) shows up at Pemberley screaming that Wickham has been murdered.

As it turns out, Wickham is still alive, but Captain Denny is not, and Wickham is found in the woodland with his body, drunkenly sobbing that his friend's demise is his fault. But what does he mean? Did he murder Denny, or is someone else to blame? Darcy and Elizabeth are wrapped up in the subsequent inquest and trial, which exposes the family to scandal and stirs public speculation and questioning about Darcy's enmity towards Wickham.

To start, the book isn't absolutely terrible, but it's also not all that great. I had difficulty finding anything redeeming about it, anything that made my reading experience enjoyable and worth the hours I spent on it. To its credit, I laughed a few times in recognition of the qualities Austen imbued her characters with. (A letter from Lady Catherine regarding the scandal was a highlight for me.) Other characters were less recognizable. Charlotte doesn't appear on-page, but James turns her into someone who never forgave Lizzy's reaction to her engagement, the person who told Lady Catherine about Darcy's partiality. I could certainly see relations having cooled between Lizzy and Charlotte even in the original text, but Charlotte as vengeful enough to bring Lady Catherine's wrath down on Lizzy? Definitely not. Mr. Bennet shows up for a visit at Pemberley but is gone after a few weeks (which the reader does not get to witness) and doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than a cameo. Bingley and Jane appear in the first fifty pages or so and are little more than helping hands following the initial discovery of Denny's body.

Worst of all, none of the humor of the original is apparent in any of the characters. Colonel Fitzwilliam has lost his playful manner and is turned into a viscount and almost a caricature of the militaristic man; he gives orders and does little else. I could probably count the scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth on one hand; people turning to the novel for their relationship will be incredibly disappointed. To be sure, a murder mystery is not a barrel of laughs, but James spends so much time describing the anxieties the characters are allegedly experiencing that there is no room for what relief some light, if forced, banter or a small romantic moment could have offered. That is, if the reader felt the anxieties alongside Darcy and Elizabeth, which I did not. Perhaps most disappointingly, Lizzy is hardly in the book at all, and definitely lacks the spirit and determination one would expect her to show in a time of great difficulty. Gender roles are enforced strongly; the notion of "women's work" shows up several times and the men are shown to be concerned for Lizzy and Georgiana's delicate sensibilities. There is one rousing moment--another highlight--where Georgiana's suitor Alveston objects to Georgiana's own wishes being disregarded by Darcy and the Colonel, but otherwise the book conforms to period expectations and keeps women away from men's work.

My biggest problem with the novel was the amount of telling rather than showing, and the constant rehashing of details both from the original Austen and from earlier in the story. I can understand some summary for those unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice who might take up the book, but I couldn't help rolling my eyes every time Darcy's dislike of Wickham was driven home with a sledgehammer. Similarly, the story of the night of the murder is told over and over and over again to the point of being wearisome and tedious to slog through. Dialogue is extremely sparse and there's chapter upon chapter, two or three pages in length, where actions of and conversations between characters are relayed in long paragraphs of description. I pity whoever has to adapt this book for the BBC; he or she will have to manufacture most of the dialogue. There were also instances of unnecessary or annoying detail seemingly thrown in to show James had done her research. At times it reads like a treatise on the legal system of the era; legal process and proposed reforms are described to an annoying extent. Another instance that jarred me was when Colonel Fitzwilliam remarks upon another character's eagerness to relieve himself seemingly for the sole purpose of mentioning that Darcy has had indoor plumbing installed at Pemberley, which the Colonel goes on to add has caused gossip and curiosity among the people of Pemberley village. It was an unnecessary and annoying detail in a text that could have used far less of those. There's also an epilogue where Darcy and Elizabeth discuss Darcy's letter and Georgiana's past involvement with Wickham--a conversation one would have thought they had six years before!

The characters just aren't themselves, and the writing leaves much to be desired. Is the mystery at least enjoyable or engaging? Sad to say, no. Darcy's participation in the investigation would be a conflict of interest, given that the murder took place on his property and the prime suspect is a man he's known to dislike, so the reader sees nothing of the actual investigation. The trial is simply a rehash of details and accounts we already know and have heard at least a half dozen times before, and the outcome is a somehow still-expected deus ex machina. I know James is a respected mystery writer, but I definitely wouldn't have guessed that from this book.

Ultimately, is Death Comes to Pemberley worth reading? It's hard to say. The characters readers will be hoping to revisit are hardly themselves and sometimes hardly present, the text could've used a ruthless editor, and the mystery itself doesn't hold a reader's attention. If you're like me and like to read a book before seeing its movie or television adaptation, it might be worth checking out. Having read the book, I at least have hopes that the cast will transcend the material; I enjoy Matthew Rhys' work on The Americans and have been impressed by Matthew Goode in other roles. Those who want to read the book before the adaptation are encouraged and won't find it much of an investment time-wise; once I was relieved of the responsibilities of schoolwork and other demands on my time, it didn't take me longer than two days to work through the majority of the book, tedious as it could sometimes be. Others who want to look in on favorite characters and be amused and entertained should seek elsewhere--for those who still want a Pride and Prejudice-related mystery story, I enjoyed Regina Jeffers' The Phantom of Pemberley much better. Whoever decides to read this book, I would recommend he or she the same course of action I took--check it out from the library. At least that way, the possible, maybe even likely, disappointment will come free.