While many writers have composed sequels to the various Austen masterpieces, James manages to preserve the flavor of “Pride and Prejudice” while also creating a fairly good whodunit. Some aficionados of the detective story will almost certainly guess big chunks of the plot, even if the details may be somewhat elusive. No matter. This is a novel one reads for its charm, for the chance to revisit some favorite characters, for the ingenious way James reworks — or resolves — old elements from Austen. At one point, for instance, we learn that Wickham was briefly employed by Sir Walter Elliot (see “Persuasion”), and two characters from “Emma” provide a solution to one of the subplots. Nearly all the minor characters are sharply drawn. Consider the distinctly Sherlockian Dr. McFee:
“His reputation as a sinister eccentric was also not helped by his having a small upstairs room equipped as a laboratory where it was rumoured that he conducted experiments on the time taken for blood to clot under different circumstances and on the speed with which changes took place in the body after death.”
At times James channels quite perfectly the tone of her famous model. There are the Austenian bons mots: “Since even the most fastidious among us can rarely escape hearing salacious local gossip, it is as well to enjoy what cannot be avoided.” We are regaled with a long letter from the wonderfully insufferable Lady Catherine de Bourgh and hear in some detail about the latest vulgarities of Mrs. Bennet. James even includes a page or so about the married life of Austen’s greatest comic character, the Rev. Mr. Collins who, when learning of the crime wave at Pemberley, prophesies “a catalogue of disasters for the afflicted family ranging from the worst — Lady Catherine’s displeasure and their permanent banishment from Rosings — descending to public ignominy, bankruptcy and death.”
As the novel advances, James quietly stresses the tension between the conservative, established traditions of Pemberley and the changes issued in with the dynamic 19th century, among them the growing recognition of women’s rights, emendations to the judicial code and increasing regard for the professions. But James hardly neglects Austen’s great theme — who will marry whom? Take Bingley’s sister:
“It was generally known both in London and Derbyshire that Miss Bingley was particularly anxious at this time not to leave the capital. Her pursuit of a widowed peer of great wealth was entering a most hopeful phase. Admittedly without his peerage and his money he would have been regarded as the most boring man in London, but one cannot expect to be called ‘your grace’ without some inconvenience, and the competition for his wealth, title and anything else he cared to bestow was understandably keen.”
P.D. James is now in her 90s, but one need make no allowance for age to enjoy “Death Comes to Pemberley.” It is a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.