P.D. James confesses, in her essay on the genesis of the novel that she is 'ambivalent' about sequels. 'The greatest writing pleasure for me is in the creation of original characters, and I have never been tempted to take over another writer's people or world'. But that is exactly what she has done in setting her new murder mystery in the heartland of Jane Austen's world - Pemberley, the home of Darcy and his wife Elizabeth Bennet. James goes on to explain that 'Austen's characters take such a hold on our imaginations that the wish to know more of them is irresistible'. James is not the first to enter Austen's fictional domain with her own take on it - and currently another novel 'Longbourn', by Jo Baker, is exploring the upstairs/downstairs world of Elizabeth Bennet's family home and there is also 'Georgiana Darcy's Diary' by Anna Elliott and Laura Masselos. There is also the very entertaining 'Lydia Bennet's Blog', by Valerie Laws.
In 'Death Comes to Pemberley', Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and have a young son. Pemberley is a tranquil, idyllic place - Mr Bennet is a frequent, welcome visitor, and Bingley and Elizabeth's sister Jane have established themselves nearby. The one source of disharmony is the youngest Bennet daughter Lydia, married to the dissolute Wickham. Lydia is 'received' (though scarcely welcomed) by her sisters for occasional visits, but her husband is barred. Both are impecunious and dependent on their more fortunate relations and Lydia has an attitude of grievance towards her sisters.
It's hardly surprising, given Austen's portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, that James has chosen Lydia to be the messenger of an event that is going to break the tranquility of Pemberley for ever. On the eve of the annual ball, a carriage comes to a violent halt at the door and Lydia tumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered. Someone has indeed been murdered, but it is Wickham who is arrested for the crime. Darcy, Elizabeth and their friends must now come to aid of a man they despise, but who is publicly part of their family.
I found the novel rather slow and the style more ponderous than Austen's - particularly the dialogue. But the plot is absorbing and the beautifully researched details of 18th century criminal procedure are fascinating, particularly to someone who once studied law with a view to being called to the Bar. It gives a very clear picture of how the law worked in small rural communities. Darcy, who is a magistrate, is also a reformer, arguing for an appeal court to review the decisions of juries. 'Could it not be possible to have an appeal court consisting of three, or perhaps five, judges to be convened if there were dissension over a difficult point of law?' His friend, Alveston, a barrister, comments that the jury would be outraged if they felt that their decision was to be challenged by a judge. Public opinion, he proposes, is the best court of appeal; 'I can assure you there is nothing more powerful than the English when seized with righteous indignation'. And so it proves.
I enjoyed this excursion into Jane Austen's world - I hope I'm still around at the age of 90 and still capable of writing such a complex novel as this one! I wonder what she's plotting now?