Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley
P D James
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £18.99

About 25 years ago, in an interview with me, P D James pointed out that Jane Austen's Emma is a detective story. Surely, it is this insight that has prompted her to pollute those hallowed shades of Pemberley with a murder. Pride and Prejudice sequels include everything from such literary reimaginings as Emma Tennant's Pemberley to mash-ups such as Mrs Darcy v the Aliens. Death Comes to Pemberley is, however, the first Austen detective novel sequel.

Set in 1803, six years after the happy union of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, the action begins on a dark and stormy night when a chaise arrives, bringing Lydia, Elizabeth's feather-brained sister, screaming about a murder in the grounds of Pemberley. Readers hoping that the victim is the odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or even George Wickham, will be disappointed to learn that it is Wickham's friend Captain Denny who has been bludgeoned to death. Wickham, discovered drunk and covered in blood near the corpse, accuses himself of causing Denny's death and is brought back to the house to be kept under guard. The annual ball is cancelled, and old antagonisms are rekindled.

Pemberley, despite its Arcadian grounds, is also where the seeds of Wickham's wickedness were sown, and he has been forbidden to visit it again. His renewed presence there is a painful reminder of his attempted seduction of Darcy's young sister, Georgiana. Now a young woman, Georgiana has two suitors: one Elizabeth's former admirer Colonel Fitzwilliam, no longer the "younger son of an earl" but a rich viscount, and the other a handsome barrister, Mr Alveston. Which will she choose - if she is free to do so?

The murder part of the plot dovetails swiftly with Austen's characters as they writhe with the consequences, social and legal, of Wickham's probable guilt and the ignominy of having him as Darcy's "brother" by marriage. Pemberley, deep in the Derbyshire countryside, resembles the other isolated communities in James's oeuvre, placing its inhabitants under unusual strain and showing them in a new light because of it. Although her portrait of the older, richer Fitz­william is harsher than seems plausible, Darcy in particular benefits from this. He becomes almostindistinguishable from her sensitive detective-poet Dalgliesh as he fights feelings of alienation, revulsion and despondency at having Wickham back in his life again. Elizabeth, preoccupied by the family's domestic affairs, is not much help. The happy couple who, as is astutely observed, were never "left in private for less than half an hour" before marriage, now seem to spend as little together after it. Quite how Darcy is supposed to have fathered a child by the end of the novel is a mystery.

Naturally, Darcy feels honour bound to defend Wickham, and the dramatic inquest and trial at the Old Bailey are depicted with assurance by the author, whose non-fiction work The Maul and the Pear Tree concerned a series of real-life murders in almost the same period. But then, alas, she provides a fairy-tale conclusion - improbable enough in Mansfield Park but enraging in a detective novel.

James rescues Death Comes to Pemberley, but only just. She makes a fair stab at aphoristic irony and also weaves in characters from Persuasion and Emma, thus pleasing the reader's sense that Austen's novels possess an indepen­dent life. However, as Austen noted, "I do not write for such dull elves/As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves", and this warning has not been heeded sufficiently. James's lack of confidence in readers' ability to remember Pride and Prejudice in detail detracts from her achievement as one of Austen's most inspired imitators, suited by temperament and upbringing to realising this sequel. In effect, she sacrifices her rigour as a writer of detective novels to wrench the plot back to happiness - yet nothing jars so much as Elizabeth's knowledge that she would not have married Darcy "had he been a penniless curate or struggling attorney". The whole point about Elizabeth as a revolutionary Georgian heroine is that she will marry for love and nothing but love.

Death Comes to Pemberley will be the Christmas present of choice in a million households. To have produced such a treat at 91 merits pride, but it won't be joining the real thing in being reread once a year.

Amanda Craig's sixth novel, "Hearts and Minds", is published by Abacus (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?