- - Friday, December 16, 2011

By P.D. James
Knopf, $25.95 291 pages

It might be titled “Pride and Prejudice and Murder.” And if that has a familiar ring for the global legions of Jane Austen admirers, it should.

In well-measured words. P.D. James conjures up the impact of murder on the world of bonnets and gowns and immutable propriety, although the reader might suspect she has her tongue firmly lodged in her cheek. If you have read “Pride and Prejudice,” you will relish these revelations of what happened after Elizabeth Bennet married Fitzwilliam Darcy and became mistress of Pemberley, a vast and grand estate.

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If you haven’t read the famous book, it doesn’t matter, because Ms. James neatly explains the background and does so in prose that is as proper as Austen would have wished. You get the feeling that this is what Austen might have composed had she written a sequel to her story of Elizabeth and Darcy.

Given the tempo of the times in which Austen lived and wrote, there might be a question regarding whether she would have included murder. Note that the title of the book refers to death, which can be a quiet and acceptably respectable occurrence. The fact that this is indisputably murder embellished by scandal with all its gory details imposes an inconvenience on the magnificent domestic engine that is the Pemberley estate. Ms. James spares none of the sordid details while implying a certain disapproval about such goings-on - and on the eve of Lady Anne’s ball, too. The brutal facts are that the wicked George Wickham is not only back on the scene but drunkenly wailing in the Pemberley woods over the bloodied body of his friend Denny, who has died from a blow to the head.

Not surprisingly, Wickham is suspected of the crime and hauled off to jail. Yet his innocence is proclaimed by Darcy, despite his contempt for the man who once tried to seduce Darcy’s 15-year-old sister with the goal of getting at her fortune. Poor Darcy may have rued the day he met the problem-prone Bennet family with its handful of unruly daughters and a truly abominable mother.

It is true that he fell in love with Elizabeth, if reluctantly and after bitter misunderstandings. They went on to have a happy marriage and two children, yet they live oddly in the shadow of Wickham that doesn’t go away, and in fact, neither does Wickham. It was only Darcy’s financial intervention that forced Wickham to marry Lydia Bennet, a strumpet of a teenager he seduces and presumably never expected to have as a permanent part of his life. But she is Elizabeth’s sister, and can’t be allowed to wind up in starvation as her husband is frequently jobless, so the Darcys are constantly called on for help.

The reappearance of Wickham under the horrifying suspicion of murder further darkens Elizabeth’s happiness at Pemberley. This is in part because she remains haunted by the recollection that she once found him attractive. Worse than that, she temporarily detested Darcy on the basis of Wickham’s vicious slander of him.

The Wickhams, of course, are barred from Pemberley’s elevated social circle, which has a peculiar bearing on the night of the crime. With a dash of Austen’s quirkiness, Ms. James explains that on the night of the murder in the woods, Wickham was playing a wicked prank on the Darcys by dumping his neurotic wife on their doorstep so that her sister would be forced to let her attend the ball to which she was not invited.

There is, of course, more to the plot, which includes another seduction by Wickham, an illegitimate child and more revelations about a mysterious woman prowling the Pemberley woods. It’s almost a disappointment that Wickham didn’t do it. It comes as a relief to the reader as well as the long-suffering Darcys when Wickham is offered an opportunity to emigrate. Again with Darcy’s financial help, he and his wife depart for America, where presumably they can be expected to behave as badly as they did in England.

Perhaps more important than the fragile and sprawling plot, Ms. James has drawn an admirable portrait of the world of Pemberley, the imposing house that is the home of Elizabeth Bennet.

As the wife of Fitzwilliam Darcy, she finds herself almost overwhelmed by the effort required to keep the house running smoothly while coping with myriad minor and major domestic problems, not to mention heavy social obligations. She has responsibilities she never expected, even with veteran servants of the breed who always know what to do and when to do it.

Ms. James brings the severely controlled social sphere to life. She paints a vivid picture of how the staff of Pemberley rises to the occasion when Darcy dashes out in the middle of the night to track down a possible killer in the woods. The importance of propriety is observed, and there is an almost military precision to the operation of such an estate. Even conversation is crisply governed, and it is grimly interesting that resentment at the disturbance of routine is the chief reaction to the crime.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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