Thursday 8 December 2016

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, Perfect People by Peter James and Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke

Faber and Faber, £18.99
Macmillan, £18.99
Orion, £18.99
Jane Austen, genetic engineering and narcotics form different backdrops for three crime novels, says Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Published 23/01/2012 | 06:00

SHATTERED BLISS: Elizabeth Bennet, portrayed by Keira Knightley in the 2005 film of 'Pride
and Prejudice', has her new life disrupted by a murder in 'Death Comes To Pemberley'
SHATTERED BLISS: Elizabeth Bennet, portrayed by Keira Knightley in the 2005 film of 'Pride and Prejudice', has her new life disrupted by a murder in 'Death Comes To Pemberley'

The past may be a different country, but Jane Austen fans will find much that's familiar about PD James' latest offering, Death Comes to Pemberley.

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Arguably the UK's pre-eminent female crime writer, James is a life-long Austen fan, and here she brings together her twin passions as she writes a sequel-of-sorts to Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth and Darcy's marital bliss is shattered when a murder is committed on the grounds of their beloved Pemberley estate. The dastardly Captain Wickham, once a suitor of Elizabeth and now married to her feckless sister Lydia, is chief suspect. Can Darcy put aside his personal distaste for Wickham and see that justice is done? Always a stylish and elegant prose writer, PD James is very much at home in Jane Austen's world.

Indeed, Death Comes to Pemberley opens with an affectionate homage to one of the most famous opening lines in English literature: "It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters."

The blend of Austen and the 'cosy' crime plot works well, for the most part. The story behind the murder is sufficiently complex and littered with red herrings to satisfy all but the most hard-boiled of crime fiction fans. It's also interesting for fans of the modern crime novel to see how murder investigations were conducted two centuries ago, and particularly how the courtroom trial has evolved since then.

In that sense, and despite the genteel tone, the novel very much functions as a kind of meta-narrative, with James employing the structure of an Austen novel to comment on contemporary crime fiction, and particularly the current mania for CSI-style investigations.

That said, it's apparent that James is far more interested in detailing the recreation of Austen's world, and that the novel is more emotionally involving when the murder and its consequences are set aside to allow James to write about Pemberley, Elizabeth and Darcy, and the world in which they live. The result is a very enjoyable experience, and it is to be hoped that there will be more murders committed in the vicinity of Pemberley.

If PD James looks to the past, her namesake Peter James looks to the future in Perfect People. When their four-year-old son dies from a rare genetic disorder, John and Naomi Klaesson decide to have their next child genetically engineered. Unfortunately, the maverick Dr Leo Dettore deceives John and Naomi, implanting Naomi with twins who very quickly reveal themselves to be supernaturally intelligent children. What is Dr Dettore's plan? And who is the religious lunatic targeting Dr Dettore's patients all around the globe?

Peter James is best known for his Brighton-set Roy Grace series of police procedural novels, but he dabbled in speculative fiction long before he created Roy Grace. Here James works within the framework of the conventional sci-fi thriller, but from the beginning it's clear that the author intends the book to be read as a novel of ideas.

He is in particular interested in exploring what happens when genetic engineering arrives at the point where it borders upon eugenics.

While James is happy to ask hard questions, he's not necessarily in the business of offering easy answers.

The author's sympathies do seem to be largely with the scientists rather than the religious fundamentalists, but essentially the novel refrains from making any commentary on the morality of either side.

The story fairly gallops along, with James employing his trademark cliff-hangers to sustain tension and momentum. The broad strokes will be familiar to many horror and sci-fi fans but James does a good job of meeting our preconceptions halfway, and diverting the story into unexpected avenues.

Many of these diversions end up in blind alleys, it's true, but James is strong on characterisation, and there's a chilling aspect to the children's inability to empathise with their parents, or indeed anyone else except for one another. All told, and given that the essence of the clash in Perfect People is that between radical religion and equally radical science, this is an intriguing and timely thriller.

Set in contemporary Texas, Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke is a very modern novel that is nevertheless obsessed with the past. The novel is the third in a series of books to centre on Hackberry Holland, county sheriff of a Texas territory that shares a border with Mexico; the first in the series, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, was published in 1971, while the second, Rain Gods, was published in 2009.

Here, Holland finds himself faced by an old adversary -- a religiously inspired killer called Preacher Jack.

He also struggles to cope with a narco-gang spilling over the border from Mexico, led by the ruthless Krill; and a number of competing groups, some of whom are legal, others criminal, who are in pursuit of a missing man called Noie Barnum, an engineer with information on the Predator drone, and who is considered a valuable asset to be captured and sold to Al-Qaeda.

Written in a style that could on occasion be mistaken for that of Cormac McCarthy, Burke's prose is here heavily influenced by Biblical references, as the ageing Holland meditates on this mortality and tries to come to terms with his failings as a man. Holland is depicted as something of a bridge between the past and the future -- his grandfather, for example, was an Old West sheriff -- and Burke is at pains to set Hackberry Holland very firmly in the landscape of south Texas, frequently writing eloquently descriptive passages about the deserts and mountains, its storms, sunsets and dawns.

Despite the contemporary references, however, and Burke's explicit referencing of the consequences of 9/11, Feast Day of Fools is no less than a good old-fashioned Western masquerading as a crime thriller, fuelled by the pioneer spirit and the attempt to impose order on the anarchy of the lawless Old West. The result is a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking novel.

Declan Burke is a journalist and author. His latest novel is Absolute Zero Cool (Liberties Press).

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