My actual rating for this book was 3.5 stars
I have to start this review with a confession; I have never read a book by Jane Austen. I am familiar with the plots and some of the characters in most of her books but unacquainted with her writing style. My review of this book by P.D. James should be viewed in that light. I am only able to give my thoughts about this particular story without any comparisons to “Pride and Prejudice”, the original.
The year is 1803 and Elizabeth and Darcy have been happily married for six years. Now parents with two young sons they spend their time at Pemberley, looking after the estate and those who live and work there with great contentment. Their life is peaceful, predictable and fulfilling. This peace and quiet is cruelly interrupted when, on the night before a big annual ball is to take place, a chaise comes speeding towards Pemberley. In the chaise is Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth’s younger and unreliable sister, who is near hysterical and screaming that her husband has been murdered. When Darcy with two male guests investigates this claim he does indeed find a body in Pemberley’s wild woodland and Wickham kneeling next to it exclaiming that the death is his fault. Suddenly Darcy and Elizabeth find themselves caught up in a murder trial that could bring shame on the family as well as confronted with issues from the past that have never properly been dealt with.
I suppose this book can be judged using two different standards; a reviewer could compare the writing and the characters to Jane Austen’s original and/or comment on how this story works as a mystery. Since I can’t, for the reason stated above, say anything about this book’s similarities to or differences from Pride and Prejudice, I can only give my opinion about how this book works as a mystery. And, unfortunately, I have to admit that I wasn’t overly impressed with that aspect of this book. Not that the mystery in this story is bad, or the resolution unsatisfactory. It just didn’t do whole lot for me. In fact I didn’t really care who had committed the murder or why. Having said that, the solution, when it was revealed, was surprising, plausible and satisfying.
I found I was far more interested in the social conventions as described in this book. The things Darcy and Elizabeth worry about seem trivial compared to modern day concerns and their reactions to what is happening to them rather out of proportion given the circumstances. And yet, given the time the story is set in and the way society operated in those years, it is probably as true to reality as is possible. I always enjoy such intimate insights into past times, and this book was no exception.
It is easy to believe that I might have enjoyed this book more if I had read Pride and Prejudice first, although I can’t of course be sure of that. I’m sure there must be hard-core Austen fans feeling completely disgusted with this book. Especially since James – as she admits in the author’s note - has done in this story what Austen refused to do in hers: introduce guilt and misery.
Overall, for me, this as a rather quaint mystery written by an author who is obviously a well-accomplished word-smith. Personally though I do prefer her Adam Dalgliesh stories.