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Shakespeare and Austen Ride Again

P. D. James and David Snodin dream up irresistible sequels to classic works

The charming thing about P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley and David Snodin’s Iago, two new sequels to towering works of literature, is the love they betray for their originals. James and Snodin appear to have had loads of fun extending stories that they, like the rest of us, find irresistible.

James, the 91-year-old grande dame of the British mystery novel, is known for her creation of super-sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, who starred in 14 of her novels from 1962 to 2008. Sensing she didn’t have a 15th Dalgliesh novel in her, however, James set out to try something new: “I wanted to combine my two enthusiasms,” she told England’s Guardian newspaper, “writing detective fiction and reading Jane Austen.”

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley picks up six years after Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet got hitched at the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. At the outset, all is well. The Darcys have two healthy boys: Fitzwilliam, age 4, and Charles, age 2. The beloved Bingleys live up the road. The loathsome Wickhams keep their distance.

But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a majestic English country estate must be in want of a murder. James delivers one on the dark and stormy night before Pemberley’s annual ball, when a carriage bearing Lydia Wickham, the black sheep of the Bennet family, slashes wildly up the drive. Lydia shrieks that her husband — that would be the infamous Mr. Wickham, who had vilified Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — has been murdered on the property.

A solid whodunit follows, if hardly at breakneck speed. So successfully does Death Comes to Pemberley mimic the deliberate pace of Pride and Prejudice that we might call the former a “Regency thriller.”

Give James a close read, however, and you’ll be rewarded. Here, for example, she describes a local magistrate with full-blown Austenian archness:

“Dr. Clitheroe was a distinguished lawyer respected beyond the borders of his native Derbyshire, and accordingly regarded as an asset to the bench despite his garrulity which arose from the belief that the validity of a judgement was in proportion to the length of time spent arriving at it.”

And when she turns her eye on the English countryside, James is at her very best. Of Pemberley, she writes:

“Each tree at the edge [of Pemberley wood], perfect in form and hung with the warm golden flags of autumn, stood a little apart from the others as if to emphasise its singular beauty, and the planting then became denser as the eyes were cunningly drawn toward the rich loam-smelling solitude of the interior.”

Equally true to its literary roots is David Snodin’s first novel, Iago, a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello.

Opening three weeks after Othello’s and Desdemona’s deaths on 16th-century Cyprus, Iago pits Shakespeare’s legendary villain against the virtuoso chief inquisitor of Venice, Annibale Malipiero.

Having escaped from a tower on the island, where he was being held in connection with the deaths of Othello and Desdemona, Iago is recaptured and imprisoned in Venice. Malipiero, due to retire in just two months, is intrigued by Iago’s reputation as “an infestation that can invade and kill you before you even know you are sick.” He therefore enlists Gentile Stornello, a guileless Venetian boy, to endear himself to Iago and learn “what lies behind his crimes.” This case, Malipiero hopes, will be the capstone to his illustrious career.

Iago is richly cinematic. As a historical novel, it delights in re-creating the nuanced infighting among Venice’s power elite. It also vividly illuminates the context — civil unrest in Cyprus, the Ottoman Empire ascendant — in which Shakespeare anchored Othello. And it is frequently savage, as when Gentile’s uncle stumbles across some of Iago’s handiwork on Cyprus:

“The fresh-faced soldier from Florence, the sometimes infuriatingly voluble youngster whom Graziano Stornello had grown to like for his thoughtfulness and rare optimism, sat in a chair with his head lolling backward, an open, blood-caked mouth, and a cruel gash across his neck.”

At the core of both these novels is the primacy of family. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy is never as happy or as sure of himself as we find him at the end of the novel, sitting alone with Elizabeth, hoping her third pregnancy means a daughter’s on the way. And in Iago, Malipiero discovers firsthand how ruined homes can produce ruined men.

Perhaps the young Gentile should have the last word, for in Iago he offers an insight that would feel right at home in the pages of Death Comes to Pemberley: “The loyalty and protection of those closest to you, I think, is what makes for true succor — a shield against the fears of the night and the perils of the world outside.”

John Wilwol is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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