Logically, if you take two things you like and combine them, you should end up with something you like even more. You only need to look at the stratospheric popularity of YouTube mashups to see this rationale being played out. The “literary mashup” genre has also taken off recently, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series and others. From what I can see, the key ingredient is an enduring literary classic colliding with an unexpected genre.
So two of my favourite things – PD James crime and Pride and Prejudice – should add up to something even more fabulous, right? Unfortunately, I have to report that this theory doesn’t always work. I don’t have any problem with someone playing with a literary classic (in fact, I was quite enthusiastic about the idea) but it seems that adapting someone else’s work is a fraught and troublesome exercise. A balance needs to be struck between being faithful to the original and building upon it, and the modification that will invariably follow from that exercise. To my disappointment, it’s a line that Death Comes To Pemberley seems to fail to walk with any degree of success.
To start with the positive – the short recap of the events of Pride and Prejudice at the start is an unmitigated delight. James does have a few pithy comments to make on the original, such as Elizabeth musing on whether she would have married Darcy if he was not rich. These were the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most.
The plot itself starts out well but quickly descends into implausibility. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the characters themselves weren’t so wooden. James has a fair head start by dealing with characters that readers already know and love, but unfortunately, she has failed to make them her own. At best, they give the impression of actors in a bad movie reading aloud their lines with little conviction. By the end – death for a crime novel – we don’t really care whodunit at all. The court case at the end goes on for far too long and we spend too much time in the head of Darcy, who is so honourable as to be completely uninteresting (I believe the scientific term is “stuffed shirt”). If nothing else, the book proves Austen’s sense in telling the story from Elizabeth’s perspective!
The Sunday Times quote on the cover describes PD James as “The greatest contemporary writer of classic crime” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. But ultimately, as James herself admits in her introduction, mixing a crime story with Ms Austen’s world was always going to be a big ask. Perhaps there’s a fundamental incompatibility or perhaps the problem is that James was simply too respectful of the original and not bold enough. Whatever the cause, it’s hard to deny that Death at Pemberley is one of the less successful examples of the mashup genre.