Friday, February 24, 2012

Death Comes To Pemberley

If anyone else but PD James had written Death Comes To Pemberley hopefully it would have receieved the same criticial opprobrium lavished upon Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or other Jane Austen knock offs. The book takes place several years after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice. George Wickham - Mr Darcy's brother in law - is accused of having murdered his best friend in the Pemberley woods. He is found crouched over the body and crying that he is responsible. Anyone who has read more than one other mystery novel will deduce that he is not guilty and although the real suspect my come as a surprise by the time the resolution announces its presence and then beats you over the head you won't much care who done it or why.
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Pemberley is not a good book. It is extremely slow and much of the novel takes place in drawing rooms where various characters recount what they have seen. Often these recitations are repeated three or even four times in different contexts. Bizarrely the novel reminded me of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace where much of the movie was taken up with dreary exposition and scene after scene of two shots on sofas. With Jane Austen's extraordinarily rich cast of characters PD James has produced a narrative where they are neither troubled too much or required to think too hard. Indeed they are so lifeless and tedious that I wondered from time to time if I wasn't reading the zombie book after all.  
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The biggest crime of all in Pemberley is not the alleged murder but the fact that Elizabeth Bennet/Elizabeth Darcy is missing for much of the novel and has almost nothing to do. Her intelligence and wit are never shown and she is excluded completely from the Old Bailey where we might have benefited from her insights. There is a rather sly reference to Emma near the end of the book and this would be have been an ideal place for Elizabeth to do something clever but alas she once again is only a passive observer of events that others have undertaken. That one of the great characters of nineteenth century literature should be so treated is actually quite shocking. Elizabeth Bennet is a lot of things but this is the first time that someone has contrived to make her boring. 
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Death Comes To Pemberley has become a best seller and the film rights have been optioned. This is no surprise: our culture has largely lost its critical facility especially when it comes to crime fiction. Benjamin Black gets serialised in the New Yorker, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sells twenty million copies. Hype triumphs and we are offered the work of the connected, the safe and the dull. It was not always thus but it is now.