It is a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to writing mysteries, P.D. James can do very little wrong.
The Baroness James of Holland Park, 91 years of age, has at least for now some 21 books to her credit, mostly fiction and mostly about crime. In fact, there is probably not a crime-writing award she has not won.
But this, the newest book, is different from the rest. For one thing it's based on the novels of another writer who didn't do much wrong either -- Jane Austen.
"Death Comes to Pemberley" is meant as a follow-up to "Pride and Prejudice," centering on some of the members of the Bennet family. Elizabeth Bennet is not quite as perky as she was in the Austen book, but she has married her Mr. Darcy and is chatelaine of his estate. She has, sadly, mellowed a bit. Perhaps her responsibilities have worn her down.
But life is good anyway. The couple have two sons, are blissfully happy, quite rich and to make matters even better, Elizabeth's favorite sister Jane, who has married Mr. Bingley, lives nearby.
Just to catch you up here: Mary, the only Bennet sister who isn't pretty and not even particularly bright, you may remember, to everyone's surprise has also been married -- to a rather dull clergyman; sister Kitty lives at home with the parents, but neither sister features in the story.
The youngest sister, Lydia, does feature however -- does she ever. Lydia, always a handful, is now married to George Wickham, a bounder who had to be paid to marry her, turns up dramatically and uninvited the evening before the Pemberley autumn ball and she is hysterical. She thinks a murder has taken place on her journey -- both her husband and his best friend, Denny, left the carriage after an argument, shots have been heard.
A search party is organized and sure enough the body -- not Wickham but Denny lies dead in a clearing with a very drunk, very bloodstained Wickham bent over him, claiming the whole thing is his fault.
Even Darcy, who disdains Wickham and no longer opens his home to him, has difficulty believing he actually did the deed. The whole thing resolves itself in an inquest and a trial.
You will read this book a little differently from James' other books. The mystery itself is a rather gentle thing; you might even guess the solution early on. But you will enjoy the picture of life among the rich of Derbyshire at the turn of the 19th century -- James has done her homework well. And you will read it for the delights of its language, too. James can coin a phrase with the best of them, especially when she is in Austen mode: "I have never approved of protracted dying," says Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the delightfully unbearable tyrant of the earlier Austen book. "It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work."
And, since in Austen's world the most important thing a woman could do was marry well, James drives this point home, too.
Speaking of a former friend, Charlotte Lucas' life, Elizabeth thinks: "Charlotte's marriage could be regarded as a success as perhaps all marriages are when each of the couple gets exactly what the union promised. Mr. Collins had a competent wife and housekeeper, a mother for his four children and the approval of his patroness, while Charlotte took the only course by which a single woman of no beauty and small fortune could hope to gain independence."
Savor the language and read the book more slowly than you might another mystery, perhaps. Darcy is no Adam Dalgliesh, James' handsome, rich hero in many of her earlier books -- he's no intellectual but a man of his time in outlook and temperament. But Darcy does come along nicely -- by the end he's quite human. And all the while he's maturing, the book is great fun.
Janice Okun is The News' restaurant critic and lifelong mystery devotee.
Death Comes to Pemberley
By P.D. James
291 pages, $25.95