First published in 1932, it begins as a standard murder mystery set in a (fictional) Cambridge college. Two deaths occur in one night at the University: a much-disliked senior don, and a young, seemingly innocent and ordinary undergraduate. The obvious conclusion seems to be that the don murdered the undergraduate and then committed suicide. However, in the time-honoured tradition of crime fiction, the detective called in to investigate thinks there is more to the situation than meets the eye …
For 100 pages this story pretty much sticks to the conventions of college crime fiction, then suddenly the murderer is revealed, along with their motive and method. So we know who committed the crime, why and how: what on earth is the rest of the story going to be about? This is where it gets truly original. For instead of being a simple mystery puzzle, it abruptly becomes a thriller featuring the descendents of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth née Bennet. Yes, really. The descendents of the hero and heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Hence the ‘Pemblerley’ of the title, as the rest of the book is set in the Darcy stately home in Derbyshire. The Pride and Prejudice reference is not exactly central to the plot; it seems White just liked the idea. And why not?
On top of college mystery + thriller + Pride and Prejudice spinoff is another key element: humour. It percolates through the novel and somehow makes the whole crazy hybrid work. It’s particularly noticeable in the scene where the Darcys’ butler, Kingdom, keeps guard in the hall of Pemberley while a search for the hidden murderer is on. The passage is both atmospheric and (intentionally) comic:
Meanwhile darkness had fallen. Kingdom had stood alone in the gathering dusk of the old house whilst the great hall sank about him imperceptibly through waves and waves of gloom. The invisibility welled up from the distant corners and sank downwards from the domed ceiling, gradually stealing its last glints from the chandelier. At last only the silent ghost of a white moustache hung suspended in the night.
As if all this weren’t enough of a head-mess, the characters also have a rather meta habit of referring to crime fiction. At one point, Inspector Buller is able to get himself out of a tricky situation because of knowledge gained from reading a lot of crime novels. In another scene, Buller and the Darcys are discussing the murderer’s actions. The Darcys cannot understand why the murderer is acting in a certain way. Impatiently, Inspector Buller replies:
“You can’t argue normally, or there wouldn’t be any murders at all. But there are murders. We shall just have to pretend we’re in a detective story.”
The ‘college mystery’ element is neat: mad as a box of frogs, as most of the genre is, but clever and well thought out. As a thriller, it’s not the best. The criminal is a pantomime villain, possessing almost supernatural powers, and being unrepentantly evil. It’s not as emotionally intense as a psychological thriller such as the best of Daphne du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith, and doesn’t have as fast-paced or twisted a plot as, for example, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. But as a whole it’s a hugely entertaining and highly original oddity. I am now even more keen to re-read White’s most famous work, The sword in the stone.