It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.
I so badly wanted to like this book - it seemed like the perfect marriage of the Jane Austen everyone loves with an historical mystery. As I catch up on my reviews from January 2012, I find that I can barely remember this book and it's only February!
There's nothing inherently wrong with the plot or character development - James clearly has a good handle on the beloved characters from Pride and Prejudice and introduces them in a succinct opening chapter that recalls Austen's own voice. I also loved that the mystery revolved around Lydia and Wickham - who doesn't doubt that they continued to get in trouble after the events in P&P?
From there the mystery plods along with Darcy more or less fulfilling the role of investigator and main protagonist, although Elizabeth gets her moments in the supporting plots. Unfortunately, the action is anything but taut as the initial arrival of the police and resulting inquiry drag along. By the end of the book, it felt as though James had long ago run out of story and felt the need to pad the action to put together a full-length novel. I felt that the focus on a lower-class family living on the grounds of Pemberley was an interesting attempt to bring a different societal perspective into the world of Austen but ultimately weakened the feel that the reader is actually revisiting Austen's characters. In P&P we see only a limited view of life - Austen's famous "bit of ivory" - and for all its limitations this viewpoint makes the characters and their world seem all the more real.
I would recommend "Death Comes to Pemberley" to true P&P fans who can overlook a weak plot in favor of spending more time with their favorite characters. Those who prefer a stronger mystery or sense of place should skip the book or at best wait for a library copy.