This is a blog with spoiler free reviews. Most will be Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, but there will be some books in other genres, including the occasional Non-Fiction review. There is an ongoing series of Cover Reveal Round-Ups, and sometimes I'll write an article on something that interests me.

07 October, 2013

REVIEW: DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY

Cover illustration by Neil Gower
Cover design by Faber

DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY
BY
P. D. JAMES

ISBN: 978-0-571-28817-5
Pages: 324 (+ afterword)
Publisher: Faber and Faber
First published: 3 November 2011
This edition published: 5 July 2012

On the cover:

The year is 1803, Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years, and the orderly world of Pemberley seems unassailable. But all this is threatened when, on the eve of the annual ball, a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley's wild woodland. As it pulls up, Lydia Wickham - Elizabeth's younger, unreliable sister - stumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.

   This is in a way a sequel, as it follows up Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I've not read Pride and Prejudice, and neither have I seen any of the TV or movie adaptions, so my opinion of James's book is not in any way influenced by Austen's work.

   I have read almost all of P.D. James's books, but this one differs quite a lot from those. Sure, there's a murder here too, and there's some doubt about how it really happened. But this story is set in a time before detectives, or even what we would call murder investigations. So this is quite a bit removed from the kind of murder mystery we are used to finding Adam Dalgliesh in.
   Not only is the story-type different. There is also a marked difference in the writing style. James writes this in a way that is pretty close to what it would be at that time (, as far as I know from my limited experience of reading novels from that time). I found it to take a little bit of getting used to that this wasn't a "standard" James book.
   That is not a criticism by the way. It shows that James can write outside of contemporary crime. And in my opinion she can do so very well. The style is very well done, and it feels both authentic and very appropriate. It does of course feel a bit old-fashioned, but that is a feature and not a bug.

   Style isn't everything in a novel, it needs a story to back it up. The story here has a good core, so I'll concentrate on that first and expand from there. At it's core this is a pretty short murder and trial story, and it's pretty good. It is however nothing special. It's simply too slight. There is very little development, the story moves to quickly for that. This also means that we loose any sense of suspense, things just move from one state to another without any build-up. And there are some events happening towards the end that do feel a bit like cheating, and they didn't quite ring true to me.
   I do think that this would have made a good shorter story though, certainly nothing longer than a novella.

   What does give this story a lot of it's "padding" is the surroundings. I use surroundings to mean both the time the story is set in, and the social level it's set at.
   Some of this has to be present. There's quite a bit of space devoted to setting up the surroundings, and getting the atmosphere of that across. And I found that to be very well done by James. I got a real feeling for how these people lived, and of the time they lived in. But even while this was done well it felt a bit infodumpy, it just became too much at times. But this was perhaps more connected to the characters...

   The characters are my main problem with this novel. They are simply a despicable bunch of utter bastards. To me they showed no redeeming features at all. They started of as uncaring upper class twats, and I didn't get any closer to them in a way that made my sympathise with them through the story. On the contrary, what I learned about them made me think much lesser of them.
   They care much about appearances, and how things will effect their standing. They don't seem to have a shred of empathy, or even real feelings. They all seem to calculate everything according to how it will impact their social standing.
   I understand that this is actually realistic. What I have read about the history of that time agrees completely with these people's way of thinking, which is why the French built guillotines. Half way through this book I wanted it to turn into a serial-killer murder spree that left everyone dead before the end.

   As you can see above I really hated the characters, I really can see nothing redeeming in them. That also means that I had a problem with the upper-class setting. The way that is here does not appeal to me at all.
   Despite that, I do not hate the novel. I thought the writing was very good, and the story is pretty good when you put away all the things that annoyed me. It's not one of James's better books, and it doesn't really work as a murder mystery, but it has plenty of atmosphere - although I found that "unpleasant".

   I started by saying I haven't read Pride and Prejudice, and I can't really comment on if this will be a satisfying follow-up for those that like that. What I can say though, is that if you like novels set in that time period, you should like this one.
   Despite being slow in development it flows really well as a novel, and it wasn't a slow read for me. And despite my loathing for the characters I didn't hate the novel. Which I think is a sign it is actually very well written.
   Basically, I think this will be either love or hate for most readers. Those that have read Jane Austen before will probably have a good idea of whether they should give this a try or not.

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