Jane or James?
Like the hero(ine) of an Ed Wood movie, P.D. James exhibits a split personality, alternating between a creditable Austen persona and her familiar crime-writing persona, throughout Death Comes to Pemberley. Things start well enough with that all-important first sentence -- not, thank God, a truth universally acknowledged, but rather: "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." James goes on to summarize the plot of Pride and Prejudice (hereinafter known as P&P), which might seem unnecessary for any of her likely readers, except that she does so from the point of view of the gossiping neighbors who were convinced that Elizabeth Bennet not only married a man she despised for his money, but that "Miss Lizzy had been determined to capture Mr. Darcy from the moment of their first meeting." This sly reframing of the bones of P&P approaches brilliance, especially, of course, given that tantalizing hint of the fourth marriage. All of this in the prologue, which boded very well indeed.
Sadly, James reverts to her more familiar crime writing. Of course, she keeps up a beautiful style that strikes the right compromise between period and contemporary language, echoing Austen in its elegance if not in its all-too-rare glints of occasional irony. The sad fact is that James is not often witty, certainly not in the constant, barely suppressed fashion that Austen herself was. James gives most of her attention to plot, to evidence, and to some extent to dark atmosphere, with the comic relief confined to a couple of set pieces, such as a letter of "condolence" from Lady Catherine de Bourgh and a scene at the village church. Here she rises to Austen-ish heights ("A brutal murder on one's own property...will inevitably produce a large congregation, including some well-known invalids whose prolonged indisposition had prohibited them from the rigours of church attendance for many years."), but she abandons those heights almost immediately and entirely.
One problem is that Death Comes to Pemberley is mostly Darcy's book. James brings back Colonel Fitzwilliam and, of course, that rake Wickham, apparently to give Darcy an opportunity to reflect on, and perhaps atone for, the negligent attitudes he showed in P&P. Altogether too much time is spent rehashing P&P, with Darcy apologizing yet again to Elizabeth for the infamous proposal and unfortunate letter. Haven't they -- and we -- moved on? Worst of all, there is very little of Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley -- very little of her wit, point of view, or the delightful dialogue we should expect. Whole chunks of the book are (gasp) boring. That doesn't mean that James and Austen fans won't find a lot to like in Death Comes to Pemberley, and certainly they have to read it for themselves.
Mystery or not, I haven't been particularly happy with any of the Austen sequels. The Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mysteries by Carrie Bebris seem to me to be travesties, in which she has the eminently sane and practical Elizabeth Bennet believing in magical amulets and other supernatural silliness. Their merits, such as they are, are the elaborate intertwining of all the Austen characters into one universe (also hinted at by James, with a late, off-stage appearance of the Knightleys of Highbury). For my money, the only reasonable Austen substitute (aside from her collected letters, which are frustrating to those of use who aren't Austen scholars) is the series of mysteries by Stephanie Barron featuring Jane herself. Barron leans heavily on the letters, sometimes paraphrasing or reproducing whole passages (always acknowledged in footnotes). Perhaps because of this, she comes very close to capturing Austen's style and her attitude, with plenty of arch dialogue and ironic wit running throughout. The mysteries themselves aren't always great; they often border on espionage, especially the adventures featuring the Gentleman Rogue, Lord Harold Trowbridge. His character is perhaps the most egregious departure from reality in the series, although it is nice to imagine Austen's life so full of romance and intrigue. Nevertheless, I think Barron comes closest to Austen's style and sensibility (there might be a title in there somewhere) of any of the Austen imitators. I'm very glad the series continues in trade paperbacks, with Jane and the Canterbury Tale published just last summer (August 2011).
If, however, you're willing to take Austen as your point of departure into a completely different world, somewhere between Dickens and Dumas, check out the Sarah Tolerance mysteries by Madeleine Robins, Point of Honor, Petty Treason, and now The Sleeping Partner (published Fall 2011). These are guilty pleasures that you will probably either love or hate, featuring a sword-wielding, female "agent of inquiry" who moves about Regency London in men's clothes and lives behind her aunt's brothel. The first book, Point of Honor, begins with a truth universally acknowledged, but there's little else of Austen here. In fact, Miss Tolerance occupies an alternate Regency, with changes in the royal lineage as well as widespread poverty and degradation. (This invites comparison with Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, in which the Renaissance/eighteenth century mashup evokes a wonderful fairy-tale quality, but Robins' reasons for the alternate history are not as clear.) Critics continue to cite Austen as part of the mix, however, perhaps because Austen made the template for all Regency romances, especially those with smart, independent heroines. If you love such heroines and are willing to suspend disbelief for a fine ride, go for it. Dare I say it? I'd much rather hang out in Robins' London than at James's Pemberley.