British mystery writer P.D. James is best known for her creation Adam Dalgliesh — a pensive, private Scotland Yard detective shaped by his own personal tragedy. Dalgliesh populates many of James' stories, but not her latest. In her new book, Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James inhabits the world of Jane Austen — specifically, Pride and Prejudice.
"I had this idea at the back of my mind that I'd like to combine my two great enthusiasms," James tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "One is for the novels of Jane Austen and the second is for writing detective fiction."
Pemberley picks up with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy settled into Darcy's ancestral home. It's been six years since their marriage, and they have two healthy, handsome little boys. At first, life is peaceful and prosperous, but as the novel's name suggests, it's not quite happily ever after — "a rather ghastly murder" is discovered in the Pemberley woodlands, James says.
There's no shortage of Austen-inspired sequels out there: from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. But those sequels didn't inspire James to take up the Austen plotline. "I didn't even know they existed," James admits with a laugh.
James, who is 91, explains how she began her Austen sequel: "When I started, I said to my PA, 'We should look on the Internet!' ... she does all these clever things which I don't do — and see how many other people had written sequels. And we were amazed, absolutely amazed."
Unlike some of the sequels they found, James says she's tried to stay true to Austen's characters and writing style. Elizabeth, for one, remains a strong, spicy character. At times, she seems to acknowledge that perhaps she had been fairly calculating about her attraction to Darcy: "Elizabeth knew she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty," James writes.
"I don't think she married for money," James explains. "I think she did love Darcy and she grew to love him more. But she was not a woman who would allow herself to fall in love with a man who was totally penniless, because she felt she had responsibilities to her family. I think her aunt, her very wise Aunt Gardiner, said, 'Your father expects you to behave sensibly.' And that simply meant to make a satisfactory marriage."
In Death Comes to Pemberley, James dwells on the limited choices for women in the early 19th century. "Women were expected to marry, and if they didn't marry, that was regarded as a failure," James says. The only job they could hold was that of a governess — "a horrible job because you were neither a servant nor were you the family." (James' favorite Austen novel, Emma, explores that dreaded occupation.) Marriage and money were "tremendously important" to Austen, James says.
As for whether James will carry on in this vein — Death Comes to Donwell Abbey or Death at Delaford -- she's not going to keep her readers in suspense: "I think like most readers of Jane Austen, I often wonder what happens afterwards because they're so real to us. But no, this will be very much the one-off."