SO disappointing! I've deliberately been avoiding reading the many, many new authors who have picked up Jane Austen's characters and launched them into new adventures. Why? Because it's NOT the characters (at least not taken on their own strength) that make Jane Austen novels so memorable, it's Austen's storytelling prowess and subtle wit - which, if they were so easy to duplicate/imitate, would scarcely explain why the author remains so admired today. However, I was tempted into setting aside my misgivings by the prospect of an Austen mystery written by an author with proven mystery chops. Maybe, I thought, the diversion of a good mystery plot would distract my attention from any potential lapses in technique or wit.
The story picks up six years after the marriage of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, whose highly-entertaining courtship is described in Pride & Prejudice. The plot revolves around Lydia's rogue of a husband, Wickham, who finds himself accused of murder after being present (albeit hopelessly drunk) at the bludgeoning death of a fellow soldier on the Pemberley estate.
Alas, the mystery plot never becomes remotely interesting, which caused me to shift my focus to the storytelling, which doesn't stand up to scrutiny either. I simply don't understand how a writer as competent as James could have committed so many basic storytelling errors: abandoning a major character (Lydia) half-way through the novel; creating a mystery with a resolution that is revealed not through investigation or cleverness but through improbable chance/coincidence; retelling items of plot over and over again (first we hear the info from Elizabeth, then she retells the tale to Jane, then the whole tale gets repeated AGAIN at the inquest ... sheesh!); and, finally, wrapping up the novel with an epilogue that unnecessarily rehashes an episode from Pride & Prejudice that was satisfactorily resolved in the original text and certainly in no need of rehashing here.
Also didn't appreciate inconsistencies in characterization (where has Elizabeth's sardonic wit disappeared to? where has Darcy's haughtiness gone?) or James' attempt to "update" Austen's storytelling by having her characters explicitly discuss their feelings/emotions rather than leaving it to us readers to infer them. This sequel doesn't begin to live up to the subtlety or wit of Austen's original text.
In short, I've learned my lesson: there's only one Jane Austen, and she died in 1817. In future I'll be more disciplined about giving these Austen pastiches a miss.