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Jane Ahlin, Published January 07 2012

Ahlin: Like P.D. James, intellect, vitality endure into old age

One of my mother’s sisters turns 90 this month. (We plan to party.) My dad’s only sister will turn 95 a few months later. (We plan to party again.) Her celebration may include dancing because for her, dancing is the staple of a good party. Of course, she also may insist we ride bikes that day, or she might force me to play pickleball. The only thing for sure is that there will be plenty of activity.

Our next-door neighbor stays active, too. She’s 98 and still mistress of a two-story home where she entertains bridge groups a few times a week and has a regular schedule of friends stopping for coffee. The 97-year-old mother of another friend loves the arts and wouldn’t think of missing the F-M Symphony concerts or the F-M Opera productions. The 91-year-old father of yet another friend is chauffer, not only for his wife who is the same age but also for some of their friends. Then there’s another friend who’s going on a trip with her mother next month to celebrate her mother’s 100th birthday.

The list goes on. Given the number of my friends with parents who are 90 or more, I’ve begun wondering whether 90 is the new 80 – or, in the case of a few of them, the new 75. What else could explain my being surprised when I learned that a California friend’s mother had died? She was 106.

Granted, my take on the new vigor of nonagenarians is anecdotal and subjective. (Note: That’s the first time I’ve written the word nonagenarian, which refers to folks in their 90s; however, I’m pretty doggoned sure it won’t be the last.) Actually, it was the newest book by famed English mystery writer P.D. James that got me thinking about the intellectual heft of the oldest of the elderly. Given the honorific title “Baroness James of Holland Park” over two decades ago by the queen, P.D. James turns 92 this year. Not only is she still writing but she’s also still writing well. Chances are, Queen Elizabeth – who at 85 is no spring chicken, herself – is still reading James’ books.

The name of the new book is “Death Comes to Pemberley.” If that title causes a flicker of recognition, you likely have read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” published first in 1813. A surprise to the literary world, P.D. James chose to write a sequel – including a murder – to that beloved Austen book.

Interviewed recently by NPR’s Linda Wertheimer, James said, “I had this idea at the back of my mind that I’d like to combine my two great enthusiasms. One is for the novels of Jane Austen and the second is for writing detective fiction.” And so, at age 90, she did.

As someone who loves both Jane Austen novels and P.D. James mysteries, I couldn’t wait to get the new book, although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What sets James apart in the tradition of British mystery is her ability to add layers of psychological and emotional density to all her characters. By developing them so fully within the intricate plotting of a mystery, her books are comprehensive novels rather than clever puzzles or formulaic whodunits.

“Death Comes to Pemberley” is a dramatic departure for James, in no small part because she writes in the style of Jane Austen, picking up the story six years after “Pride and Prejudice” culminated in a happy marriage. In the new book, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are living contentedly with their two children at Pemberley, the impressive Darcy family estate.

James convincingly resurrects the characters Austen fans know so well – including the despicable Wickham – and throws in a mystery to boot. The murder mystery, itself, doesn’t compare to those in the Inspector Dalgleish series; however, there’s more than enough delight in James’ ability to adhere to the sensibilities and expectations of the late 18th and early 19th century in speech, setting and cultural norms to make up for it.

P.D. James is a master, unafraid to try something new. Like the folks I know who have reached great age with unusual vitality and intellect, she enjoys her good fortune by making use of today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.