Saturday, May 19, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Death Comes to Pemberley (Knopf, 2011).

I swear, it is like the gods of literature granted my wife and I a boon with this book. Jane Austen is one of her very favorite authors, and P.D. James is one of mine, and here we have a book where James, at age ninety, decided to indulge herself and write some Jane Austen fanfic. James is by no means the first; I think that my wife has read seventeen or eighteen different attempts at finishing Austen's incomplete Sanditon. I am, surprisingly, no fan of Austen at all; I think that the only fiction that I've ever enjoyed that was written prior to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is The Scarlet Letter, but that is my issue, and I recognize that I am in one heck of a minority.

All right; Elizabeth's father, Mr. Bennett, had me in stitches. I'm not a complete ape.

James, on the other hand, is one of contemporary literature's greatest talents. In her detective fiction, she does a masterful job building a place, almost always tightly-knit and wrapped in secrets, the more isolated, the better. Her novels may be set in, say, a research base, or a publishing house, or a nuclear power station, and the tension between the people trapped there, locked in by employment or unspoken debts, just keeps ratcheting up and up. When the murder finally happens, the effect is unlike any other modern detective fiction. The killing is not quite the crime against nature that the tradition of detective fiction expects to be restored by the intrusion of the detective. Rather, the murder creates a crack that lets Superintendent Dalgliesh in. It is the isolation and jealousy that is the crime against nature in James's novels, you see, and Dalgliesh the force that restores balance by overseeing the destruction of the place or the forces linking people together, away from the world.

If you have never read one of these novels, I urge you to find time. I have, lately, been enjoying Robert B. Parker's Spenser stories, and have greatly enjoyed other tough guys in the works of Raymond Chandler and Donald E. Westlake, but what the tough guy protagonists in these novels set out to solve with their fists and their mouths, Dalgliesh accomplishes by presence of will. Hiding something from Dalgliesh, the quiet, calm, sensitive poet and widower, is the worst mistake anybody can make. It's that simple contradiction that brings all the fun. James admittedly succumbs to tropes - Dalgliesh on vacation or leave, octogenarians still angry about something that happened fifty years previously - but she is on fire most of the time, and burns brighter and more harshly than any of her peers.

With the importance of place in mind, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice makes perfect sense. Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy live in one of those why-the-hell-is-this-house-so-big country estates called Pemberley, and that's the perfect setting for James to work her magic and turn this place upside down by killing somebody. This is, despite what I described in the previous two paragraphs, a much more traditional work of detective fiction in that the killing is the issue, and not the unnatural isolation. I doubt that James could call herself a devotee of Austen and then be so churlish as to tear down Pemberley in the way that she did that damnable family in A Taste for Death. No, here, Pemberley represents what is right and good in the world, and the murder on the estate grounds is the only thing that must be avenged. Well, something must also be done with Elizabeth's dimwit younger sister Lydia, who brings the chaos to the Darcys' door when she arrives screaming that her husband and a friend have been killed.

Now, the interesting thing about setting any kind of detective fiction in the early 1800s is that murder most foul in a community like this really is a complete nightmare. Everybody knows everybody else, and there was such a different approach to privacy three hundred years ago. A murder on this property is a huge burden and a social problem of magnitudes we don't have today. How in the world do you cancel a ball at almost no notice when the only socially acceptable way to get word to dozens of guests is by a handwritten letter?

There's also the question of how the community polices itself and investigates something as outre as murder. This is set, after all, some decades before even a big city like London had the forerunner of its Metropolitan Police. This does lead to an astonishing lapse on James's part, where her otherwise perfect prose just falls apart. When some of the menfolk retire to talk about this dirty business, Darcy delivers a line that reads a lot like, "For the benefit of anybody who might be reading an account of this some hundreds of years from now and who has no idea how in the world this works, please remind me, dear lawyer friend, how we magistrates are supposed to conduct this inquiry." Well, maybe it isn't quite that bad, but it's eye-poppingly awkward. I don't believe James has ever made such a narrative stumble before.

Reading this, and enjoying its cheek, its fun, and its masterful, fair play with the rules of the genre, I found myself a little sad that we have so few books by James, comparatively, to cherish. There are only nineteen over a fifty-year career. If Pemberley is indeed the last, then she has certainly earned her retirement, and it was nice that she gave Dalgliesh a happy ending in The Private Patient, and it's actually a little refreshing to see that James can still pull off something as comparatively light as this, after the incredibly heavy events across the last half of the Dalgliesh novels. No, it is not quite breezy, but it is light, and very entertaining. Recommended.

No comments: