Thursday, November 23, 2006

Elizabeth George: American Mistress of the English Cottage Mystery

Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers series is one of my favorites. Her most recent entry into the series, What Came Before He Shot Her, takes an interesting departure from the previous books, as most of the primary characters that she has developed throughout the series do not appear at all in this one. Well, Helen appears long enough to get shot. And Deborah hangs around long enough to park the car while Helen gets shot. The only other regulars who appear, Havers and Nkata, make their brief, low-key entrance in the book’s final scene. Nevertheless, George’s fans, knowing how this book’s main character is connected to the overall series, will not be able to resist this one. For the main character of this book, Joel Campbell, is implicated in the heartbreaking event that marked the climax of the previous one: the brutal murder of Helen Lynley.

Elizabeth George has a tremendous following around the world. Her reputation is well earned, for she writes exquisitely, though not quite as well as P.D. James, the unmatched mistress of this genre. She researches each book thoroughly; consequently, every story provides substantial food for thought. What Came Before He Shot Her clearly demonstrates George’s sensitivity to the sociological and psychological dynamics that, all too often, reach tragic climaxes on busy city streets and in seemingly quiet rural villages.

So, what do I like about the series? And what improvements would I like to see in future books?

First, the primary characters in the series, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers, are fascinating. Lynley, an inspector at New Scotland Yard, is Lord Asherton, a member of the British nobility. He is handsome, well educated, articulate and socially polished. He is a good man who continually wrestles to control his inbred elitist tendencies. He has largely outgrown the selfishness of his youth, but he is far from perfect. He is likeable, yet, at times, infuriatingly arrogant. His partner, Barbara Havers, is his opposite in every way. Havers grew up in a working class home in a family scarred by tragedy. She is not physically attractive, and is neither well educated nor socially polished. She is, in fact, socially inept, a circumstance that often lands her in personal and professional difficulties. She is shrewd and intelligent, however, a keen observer of the people and events around her. She struggles, without success, to overcome feelings of inferiority and sees herself as the eternal outsider whose earnest efforts are never quite good enough to win either approval or respect from those around her.

This seemingly ill-matched pair is an intriguing combination. Their relationship ebbs and flows as they struggle to overlook class differences and work together. Havers respects Lynley tremendously and longs to be his friend as well as his colleague. Lynley, at times impatient with Havers’s intransigence and at other times awestruck by her unerring police instincts, is oblivious to her need. He maintains a professionally cordial relationship with her (most of the time), but is unaware of his unconscious reinforcement of embedded class distinctions that, apparently, will never disappear. Other members of Lynley’s intimate circle are much more sensitive to Barbara than he is and they try to welcome her into their circle.

One of Lynley’s oldest friends, a former lover who eventually tossed him aside and married his best friend, is Deborah St. James. Deborah is a character whom George needs to flesh out more fully. In the first few books of the series, Deborah agonized, ad nauseam, over her inability to have a child. This storyline got tedious after awhile, and I was grateful when George finally resolved it. Deborah, a member of the privileged class, nevertheless struggles with feelings of inadequacy. This struggle is common to most of George’s female characters, regardless of their social standing. Presumably, George is making the point that gender issues often transcend those of class.

Deborah’s husband, Simon St. James, is inexplicably boring. As a young man, he was crippled in a car accident in which a drunken Lynley was at fault. Simon is unflappable. The reader never witnesses him expressing frustration over his significant disability. Moreover, in one scene in which Lynley is inappropriately and unconscionably rude to his wife, St. James barely raises his voice in her defense. St. James, a forensics expert, has the potential to be a fascinating character, as he could provide significant insight into the struggles of the disabled as they fight for acceptance and respect in a world that often patronizes and pities them. George needs to work with him a lot more.

Lynley’s recently murdered wife, Helen, began as a bland, spoiled spendthrift, jetsetter and airhead. Early in the series, Helen embodied all of the worst qualities of the British elite. In more recent books, however, Helen’s moments of introspection were priceless. Moreover, she was the member of Lynley’s circle who most warmly welcomed Havers into their midst. It’s a shame that she got killed off just when she was becoming interesting.

Two other significant characters are Azhar, Barbara's landlord, and Hadiyyah, his young daughter. They are east Asian immigrants who provide a social context for Barbara outside of her workplace. Azhar offers interesting insights to the conflicts that arise when immigrants raise children in new cultures. Azhar is very traditional and "old country," and Hadiyyah* is becoming very much a child of Britain.

The final character I will mention is Winston Nkata, a black policeman of Caribbean descent who works with Lynley and Havers. Nkata is a fellow from a rough background who has made a success of his life. He and Havers respect each other, but, occasionally, their career interests conflict. This creates some interesting social and professional dynamics for them.

These are the principal characters in the series. While George’s development of these characters has been uneven, she has created an interesting cast from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds. Thus, they provide her with a solid foundation for exploring a rich array of class, ethnic and gender issues. I look forward to seeing what George will do with these riches.

Another thing I like about the series is that George’s plots are generally well-constructed. Each book is complete and does not require familiarity with the others. One can pick up any one of them and immediately become immersed in a coherent story with a satisfying resolution. Moreover, she sets scenes as well as anyone. This is testimony to a) the depth of her research and b) her eye for detail. When one reads George’s books, one clearly visualizes the characters and clearly sees the action unfold. This is unquestionably an area of strength for George.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about George’s writing is her ability to plumb the depths of human emotion and relationships. She has a wonderful command of the English language and she uses it to artfully convey powerful scenes, images and feelings. One scene that stands out, from relatively early in the series, is the discussion in which Deborah and Simon finally put to rest the issue of childbearing. Simon’s description of how he can’t bear to try for another child, because every time they lose a child, he loses a piece of her, is spellbinding. Incidentally, this is Simon at his best too.

Another scene that stands out is the one in which Lynley finally gets over his fury for what he perceived as Havers’s insubordination. In the previous book (Deception on His Mind), Havers had shot at a superior officer in order to save a child from drowning. But Lynley just could not comprehend Havers’s account of her actions – he just saw her as unwilling to abide by essential rules. As it happens, in this book (In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner), Lynley bent the rules to help out an old friend. The information Lynley provided eventually compelled the friend to commit suicide. At the end of the book, Lynley says to Havers that, when she bent the rules, a life was saved. In contrast, when he bent the rules, a life was lost. On the whole, he says, he’d rather have her record than his. This was a moving resolution to a conflict that festered throughout the entire book. It was a powerful moment of introspection for Lynley and a beautiful moment of reconciliation between the estranged partners.

Perhaps George’s most powerful scene to date occurred in With No One as Witness, when Helen Lynley was on her deathbed. Lynley’s anguish throughout this impeccably detailed ordeal is palpable. Anyone who can read this passage without breaking into tears has a heart of stone. Moments like these, when she exposes the human heart, are when George is at her best. Moments like these are what keep her fans coming back for more.

It’s been fun watching George's talents develop throughout this series. In my view, her weakest effort was A Traitor to Memory (which, ironically, followed two of her best books). Her latest entry in the series is not quite as good as its predecessor (With No One as Witness), but it is, nonetheless, engaging. I hope that George’s next volume will return to the characters to whom readers have grown attached, for they are her bread and butter. Sometimes variations in diet are welcome diversions, but, eventually, consumers like to return to the staples that have proven to be tried and true.

* An astute commenter (see below) pointed out that Hadiyyah is not an immigrant. I stand corrected on that point.


Naveron said...

I wonder why Elizabeth St. George did such a terrible job of the women in Lynley's life: namely Helen and Deborah. They are very irritating characters.

I don't agree that Simon St. James is boring. He is not emotive, but not boring. His choice of Deborah as a wife is a mystery though. She acts like a spoiled baby.

I find the storyline of Lynley and Helen spending time comfortably with their respective ex-lovers a bit hard too take.

The Step said...

Hadiyyah is not an immigrant, she was born in England of an immigrant father and a British mother.

Evie said...

Thanks for catching the error.