Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley was my introduction to the world-renown Baroness of Holland Park P.D. James, and so I am crushed to report I did not enjoy this book at all.

I was so excited to read it, too.

First, I would finally be introduced to P.D. James and, given the subject of this blog, I'm well aware of how ridiculous it is I haven't read anything else by her.

Secondly, although not a cosplaying, fanfiction-writing, convention-attending fangirl, I do so love Jane Austen. Aside from the Sherlock Holmes canon, which I re-read when I was younger every November for about six years straight, I am not, as a general rule, one for re-reading books. But I have read Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility twice each, and suspect at some point down the road I will certainly revisit Emma.

The premise of the mystery is a wonderful one, too. A dark and stormy night, a carriage carrying Elizabeth's infamous sister Lydia (yes, that Lydia, now Mrs. Wickham) to the Darcys' door, a brutally murdered body found in a moonlit field -- the perfect recipe to stay up cataclysmically late reading. In fact, the book jacket's synopsis made save this book for a weekend because I was certain I'd lose track of time and look up from it to see silver clouds and the sun flirting with the skyline.

Which makes this review all the more difficult to write. So I will start on a positive note, and work my way through from there.

The book does succeed in a few notable ways well worth mentioning.

Undeniably, P.D. James captured the tone, syntax and rhythm of Austen's narrative style masterfully. It is obvious James loved Austen and James certainly treated Austen's sparse but piercing writing style with respect, if not reverence. Achieving that level of authenticity is not easily done and James deserves high praise for it.

There was quite a bit of detail on the British legal system, which was at the advent of some pretty exciting and revolutionary changes at the time, and James does a nice job incorporating these. As a former law student and just a nerd in general, I thought these were some of the most interesting parts of the book, but I wouldn't be shocked if others found it to be a bit too much.

There was, of course, some rehashing of Pride of Prejudice, and even though at times I thought it tedious I can forgive it -- not everyone who picks up this book with be familiar with its basis and they deserve a full story arc, too. So for me, that wasn't the issue.

The problem was the book never seemed to really to gain momentum of any kind until the very end and, even then, one subplot was tied up in a way that I can only describe as deus ex machina at best and lazy at worst.

The dialogue felt forced and wooden, turning all of the characters into beige, blurry splotches of their beloved roots, at times nearly interchangeable.

Now, I understand that this is, after all, a pastiche; I think it's unreasonable to expect the characters in any pastiche to be exactly the same as the ones in an original work. And, given that this story takes place a good length of time after Pride and Prejudice, it can be easily argued that the characters, like real people, will have grown and changed from their experiences.

Yet all of the characters sounded like the same person was speaking, particularly the men.

Granted, there was a tone and style to speech in Regency England that reflected one's class and upbringing, and any writing tackling Austen has to be aware of this because Austen herself used that as a narrative tool so well.

So Wickham would have the same speech pattern as Darcy because it would underscore their common upbringing, and serve as a subtle way to remind the reader that despite speaking the same as Darcy they are not, and never were or will be, in the same class caste.

However, that does not mean characters would give up any and all sense of personality. The fact that Austen's characters are still beloved today proves this. But unfortunately, that is exactly what happens in Death Comes to Pemberley. 

If Lydia was being melodramatic, or Darcy frustrated, or Wickham cagey, the reader never knows this by how they act or what they say but because they are told that is the case. This may come down to personal preference but that level of expository writing in fiction simply bores me to tears.

This made a pretty decent twist ending (those who read mysteries frequently will likely figure it out pretty early on) fall flat.

Even the settings have the two-dimensional feel of a cutout for a stage play, like something James had to get through before she could go back to explaining things. The characters didn't so much interact with the places they are in so much as get put there.

Which I suppose, for me, is the best way to sum up why I couldn't get lost in this story. It felt rushed and mechanical, the fiction equivalent of reading a grocery list.

Of course, every well-plotted story has an attendant checklist -- introduce characters, give full context, describe/incorporate settings, etc. etc., and what is a plot if not map? But the reader should never see that process or even know it is happening.

Whereas while slogging my way through this book I couldn't shake the feeling I was reading a detailed basic outline of a proposed story. Had James taken the time to flesh it out a bit more, this could have been a really great pastiche.

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