Death Comes to Pemberly

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Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a not a fan of Austin. I just don’t find the humor or triumph in any of her characters; I only want to slap them silly. However, when others have played in her universe well,  and not had the social satire aspect be the only thing that mattered, I have found myself enjoying the stories immensely. Kowal’s series comes to mind immediately.

Playing in someone else’s world is always a challenge. While there are plenty of shared universes in genre (comic books are probably the most successful examples), you didn’t get to see it often in literature until recently. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is amusing as an idea, but executed rather poorly, is the immediate go-to for most people.

Pemberly was tackled by the talented PD James, who has already proven her ability to slip into different genres; for example, the brilliant science fiction book, and nearly equally good film, Children of Men. That ability, to shift genre, is not a common one.

James, fortunately, is not only a great writer, but knows how to respect her source material. Pemberly is at its best when it is expanding on the original. James managed to take the well-known tale and put all the characters together again in amusing and entertaining new ways. She forces enemies to work together and readers to both acknowledge who those characters were in the original book and, perhaps, rethink them with this new adventure. 

Unfortunately, it is at its weakest when it shifts into being a court-room drama. Frankly, this is where it felt the least sure and believable, Whether that is the fault of the adaptation or James’ book, I cannot say.

Despite the courtroom moments, the rest is a prime period mystery, well steeped in the society and times of its surroundings. It is also well directed in the visual period, or how we have learned to envision the period from so many adaptations of Austin’s original.

Martin (PhilomenaThe Bletchley Circle) and Rhys (The Americans), as the Darcys, create the “post-happily ever after” couple of the original book. The tension between them continues, as does the effort and love in reasonably believable ways. Similar struggles, but with the history of the original story behind them, repeat through this 3-part story.

Goode (Stoker) provides a nicely re-conceived Wickham, without ignoring his past. As his bride, Coleman (Doctor Who) is the embodiment of flibbertigibbet sister Lydia. How their relationship evolves is one of the more interesting ideas of the piece.

Tomlinson (The White Queen) as the recovering Georgiana, victim of Wickham’s previous escapades, and her two new suitors add an interesting set of parallels and anchor back to P&P as well.

Finally, Trevor Eve (Waking the Dead) gives us a new look into Hardcastle, without violating what we knew or understood about him. His character, as portrayed, is a little inconsistent, but Eve pulls you along with his, as ever, fine performance.

Whether you think you like Austin or not, if you like period mysteries or period stories, you’ll likely enjoy this latest addition to the genre. I suspect we’re going to start seeing a lot of classics revisited in the coming seasons. If they can maintain this level of quality, it may even be a good thing, though I’d still prefer new ideas over rehashed ones, as a general rule.

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