Monday, December 14, 2015
a cracking-good yarn: Darkness at Pemberley, by T.H. White
originally published 1932, Victor Gollancz
Not to be at all confused with P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley, White's novel takes place over a century later than Austen's original and opens with a sort of locked-room puzzle. I have to say that in this case, the words "cracking good yarn" came to mind after I'd finished it; it's definitely not perfect by any means, but it's definitely a good, old-fashioned tale that kept me turning pages.
Darkness at Pemberley is quite different than most novels of this time -- the book opens with two deaths at a college (a disclaimer for which White wrote in his original book, reprinted in this edition) behind locked doors. It looks like a murder-suicide and Inspector Buller ("in many ways a strange man"), who is investigating the crime, is told by his superior at Scotland Yard to ask for that verdict at the upcoming inquest. The evidence supports this judgment on the face of things, but Buller is deucedly unhappy -- he senses murder but can't quite piece together how things were done. However, the question of whodunit and how is ultimately revealed to Buller by the clever murderer himself, who lords it over Buller since there's absolutely no way to prove a thing. Buller quits the force and accepts an invitation from his old friend Charles Darcy to come to Pemberley for a visit. End of part one.
Part two picks up with Buller at Pemberley, and we learn some interesting information here. This Lord Darcy had been in prison for a couple of years for cocaine smuggling, although he was tricked into getting involved. His social downfall and the scandal had also caused all but the most faithful of servants to leave Pemberley. Buller has long been enamored of Miss Elizabeth Darcy, Charles' sister, but his ideas about social class leaves him afraid to act on his feelings. Most importantly, though, Buller has related the story about the murderer to his friends. Charles, who doesn't always think before he acts, takes it upon himself to seek out said killer and give him a warning that he'll kill him within a week. Bad idea, since now Buller realizes that the murderer will be coming after Charles to try to kill him; he also knows that it will be yet another murder that will never come to justice.
Darkness at Pemberley is anything but a ripoff of Austen's original; it is also a most unusual story. Justice is at its heart, as is the fact that readers are left thinking about exactly what kind of people we're dealing with here as the main players come up with their own plans as to how to set things right. It is a really good study of character and social class of the time, number one; number two, as I mentioned at the beginning, it's also a cracking good yarn.
I've seen several negative reader reviews but I genuinely enjoyed this book -- it's anything but run of the mill or formulaic and while a lot of readers were left cold, I thought there was enough excitement in it to keep it from being anything but boring. It's certainly one I'd recommend to readers of vintage British crime. If you're expecting a riff on Pride and Prejudice, as some readers obviously were, the book might seem disappointing; otherwise, going into it with no expectations might just be the way to approach it. It was actually surprisingly good.