Death Comes to Pemberley
By P.D. James
Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95)

Death comes to Pemberley, one of the great houses in Derbyshire, and a most unwelcome guest it is.
Not only does the loss of life come at a most inopportune time, the night before the annual Lady Anne’s ball, the highlight of the local social season, but it is a most violent and unexpected fatality into the bargain.

“He has been bludgeoned,” the examining physician says of the victim. “The wound is characteristic of the severe head wounds with strands of hair, tissue and blood vessels impacted into the bone.”
Severe head wounds caused by a bludgeoning? In the woods near Pemberley? Surely there must be some mistake.

For Pemberley, as those devoted to Jane Austen know, is the ancestral estate of Mr. Darcy, the stunning property to which he and his bride, Elizabeth Bennet, retired at the end of “Pride and Prejudice.” What on Earth is such extreme violence doing there?

No one understands the incongruity of this more than the woman who brought death to those particular woods. That would be the British writer P.D. James, the venerable 91-year-old author of potent detective fiction for whom the word “doyenne” might well have been invented.

Herself a major Austen fan, James starts the book with an author’s note in which she allows, “I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation.” Especially because, as James points out, Austen had plainly declared in “Mansfield Park,” “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can. …”

Still, this is not the first time Austen’s characters have been thrust into disturbing waters, and having P.D. James as your guide is certainly an improvement on the likes of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” If you appreciate mysteries as well as the Mighty Jane, this pleasant entertainment will do nicely.

For one thing, it is certainly fun to get back in touch with the old P-and-P crowd, and James briskly brings us up to date. Darcy and Elizabeth, now married for six years, have two young sons, and, not surprisingly, see an awful lot of Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley.

New to matrimony is bookish sister Mary, who has married a rector, while flighty Lydia is still wedded to Wickham, who had a moment as “something of a national hero.”

The writer steers clear of tarnishing the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship. Six years of marriage have, if anything, deepened that love match, and a good thing too. Janeites around the globe would arise in united fury if any novelist had tried to have it any other way.

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