Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - This Body of Death by Elizabeth George

Inspector Thomas Lynley is back. Sort of. Elizabeth George’s sixteenth novel revolving around the dapper Scotland Yard detective, This Body of Death, sees Tommy Lynley’s return to London from his compassionate leave and his hike of the Cornish coast after the senseless murder of his wife, Lady Helen and their unborn child.

After the body of an unidentified young woman is found in an overgrown cemetery in Stoke Newington in north London, Lynley, who is already home in Belgravia, is summoned back to the Met by Acting Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, who made an appearance in the earlier book, Playing for the Ashes. Up to London from Maidstone, in Kent, Ardery is one of George’s trademark complex characters. She’s neurotic, alcoholic, and a failed wife and mother, who secrets and drinks small, airline bottles of liquor, usually vodka, in order to keep her on a somewhat even keel. And stay on an even keep she must, because whether or not Isabelle Ardery becomes the permanent Superintendent depends on snobbish and arrogant Assistant Commissioner Sir David Hillier, whose interests, as far as the Met go, lie in realms other than those of his working detectives.

It isn’t help in solving the murder that Ardery wants from Tommy Lynley, though she gets that, of course. What she really needs and wants is for Lynley to be physically present at the Met, so her team, which was formerly Lynley’s team, and still fiercely loyal to the Cornish charmer, stops thinking of him with awe and reverence and gives Ardery half a chance to succeed. And predictably, it’s Tommy Lynley who sees through Ardery’s hard shell to the scared and vulnerable woman hiding underneath. Yes, Inspector Thomas Lynley has finally healed enough to allow himself to be susceptible to the charms of a woman who is not the late Lady Helen. Though Lady Helen had always been one of my favorite characters, I was glad to see Lynley beginning to come to life once again.

Even though George writes about a London-based detective, she always manages to set her books in interesting parts of England other than the City, and so it is with This Body of Death. The identity of the murdered woman leads to the New Forest in Hampshire where Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata (Lynley has remained in London) meet a strange mix of characters in a beautiful and strange world. There’s Gordon, a thatcher and a loner who seems to have no attachments other than to his dog, Tess; there’s Robbie, an agister and brother of one of Gordon’s former lovers; there’s Meredith, a single mother who wants to be a fabric designer, and the mysterious, blonde, and voluptuous Gina, if Gina’s her real name, and the reader has no reason to believe it is, the woman who appears to be Gordon’s current girlfriend. All of these people are connected, in one way or another, with the murdered woman, and of course, it isn’t long until there are multiple suspects, and a string of red herrings, including a psychic, an ice skating instructor, and a mentally ill violinist. Though the New Forest might seem enchanting and even idyllic, in this book, it holds dark secrets whose exposure will lead to tragedy.

Threaded through the narrative of the young woman’s murder is another, seemingly unrelated story told in the form of a psychiatric report revolving around the abduction, abuse, and murder of a two-year-old by three adolescent boys, all of whom had been abused themselves.

At first, this peripheral story, which does mesh with the main narrative near the book’s end, was boring for me. I really disliked having to stop reading the main narrative to read yet another block of dry, boring psychiatric report. So, I made the decision to read the entire psychiatric report all at once (it contains no spoilers, by the way) and get it out of the way so I could concentrate on the main narrative. It was a decision I did not regret.

The main story, itself, moves glacially, at least in the first third of the book, and is burdened by so many different and fragmentary plot threads that I was almost ready to put it down – again. (Two or three times before I’d tried to read this book and was defeated by the extreme slowness of the plot’s unfolding.) I do have to say that George is very, very good at weaving her disparate plot threads into one cohesive whole, however, and when she does, it’s almost always worth the wait.

Most of the characters in this book are well drawn, but so many of them are thrown at the reader in the book’s early chapters that we never get a chance to really know the ones we haven’t met previously. I would just be settling in, taking an interest in a character, when that plot thread I was reading would dissolve into a new one, with new characters. And, while the female characters were beautifully nuanced, the male characters suffered a bit from stereotyping. For example, Tommy Lynley is always boyishly handsome in a tall, blond, Scandinavian way, while another character is this book, Robbie is described as being so toothy he’s ugly. I suppose George wanted readers to feel sympathy for Robbie, but her description of him made me lose sympathy rather than develop it.

And even though I adore Barbara Havers, in this book, some of Havers’ reactions to AS Ardery seem more childish than eccentric, and I really felt Havers deserved better. Although some of Havers scenes, especially with Ardery, are no doubt meant to provide comic relief, most of the time I found myself truly annoyed with Havers’ interaction with Ardery, and I felt guilty about that because I like Barbara Havers so much. And really, it’s time Havers had a love interest of her own, a genuine love interest, rather than following Lynley around like some lovesick thirteen-year-old. Barbara Havers, I think, would have more self-respect than that.

The dialogue, which is typically Elizabeth George, is spare and plain, and it very much fits a police procedural/mystery. The only place I felt let down by the dialogue was during Lynley’s romantic reawakening: “[Lynley] looked at her and she held the look. The moment became a man-woman thing. That was always the risk when the sexes mixed. With Barbara Havers it had always been something so far out of the question as to be nearly laughable. With Isabelle Ardery, this was not the case.”

Why was the thought of a romantic liaison with Barbara Havers laughable? Because she isn’t classically beautiful? Because she’s so eccentric? Is Lynley really that shallow? The dialogue above, besides being kind of laughable itself, made me want to slap Tommy Lynley and tell him not to be so hung up on appearances. I hope in future books George gives Havers a love interest of her own, and that she stops writing the eccentric detective as a stray cat, who will follow Lynley anywhere.

And, has Tommy Lynley, during his walk of the Cornish coast, become something of a Lord Peter Wimsey? I hope not. I like Lord Peter Wimsey, but I also like Tommy Lynley, and I want him to remain “Tommy Lynley.” His old friends, Deborah and Simon St. James make brief appearances in this novel, but they aren’t involved in much of the plot. As I was reading, I began to long for books like the early “Inspector Lynley novels,” books that featured Lynley, Lady Helen Clyde, Simon St. James and Deborah Cotter throughout the entire novel, books like Payment in Blood in which a still single Lynley and the St. James’ who were yet to marry, travel to Scotland to meet Lady Helen, who is acting in a play. I realize the characters must “move on” and I’ve enjoyed the complications among the four. And I’m one reader who didn’t mind too much that George killed off Lady Helen even though I liked her. However, I do like to see the two remaining friends – Deborah and Simon – featured more heavily. The early books, A Great Deliverance, For the Sake of Helena, Payment in Blood, Playing for the Ashes, and Missing Joseph were all tightly plotted, highly atmospheric books that really pulled the reader into Lynley’s world. I felt this cool and detached book, on the other hand, tried to keep the reader at arm’s length.

The plot in This Body of Death contains too many holes, when compared to the tight plotting of the early novels. I couldn’t buy it that Havers would place herself in peril by not calling for backup in a potentially dangerous situation, for example. And the character of Gina Dickens makes so many illogical choices that a reader has to wonder what her primary motivation is.

The above, however, were mere quibbles, and quibbles alone never put me off any book. What really put me off this book was the fact that the case referenced by the “psychiatric report” threaded through the main narrative was a very thinly disguised version of the James Bulger case that rocked England some years back. I felt sick. Why? Why did Elizabeth George, who has such a fertile imagination, have to include the James Bulger case in her book? Surely she could have imagined a fictional child murder/child murderer that would have no, or less, impact on the family of poor James Bulger. I almost stopped reading the book at that point. I had to put it down for a few days, until I felt I could tolerate it again.

I realize Elizabeth George has an interest in abused children who do not get the proper attention and care and who later commit heinous crimes. Any reader of the “Inspector Lynley” books knows that as most of the books contain a character or two who fits that description. It isn’t that I don’t care about abused children. I do. Every child has the right to grow up feeling safe and loved. I’m just tired of exploring the issue time and time again in George’s books. I just wish she’d “vary the crime” a little so it doesn’t always involve someone who was abused as a child.

This Body of Death is quite long. My hardcover copy is more than six hundred pages of small font. If that small font were “normal” size, this book could easily stretch to eight hundred to nine hundred pages. Still, psychiatric report aside, and once the first one hundred or so pages were read, the book did read quickly as George writes very flowing prose. But don’t buy this book for an airplane ride and think you’ll be able to finish it. You won’t. Not unless you’re a speedreader. Maybe not even then.

Bottom line, this book is a lot better than the meandering Careless In Red, but Lynley isn’t quite back to form. Still, quibbles and psychiatric report aside, for the most part, I very much enjoyed reading this book, though it’s by far not George’s best. I’m looking forward with much anticipation to the new “Inspector Lynley” novel that will be released in January. It’s so good having Tommy Lynley home again. If he needs a little time to settle in, I’m willing to give it to him.


Recommended: Readers of the “Inspector Lynley” series won’t want to miss this book, and they can take heart knowing things have improved. Though all of the books in this series can stand alone, only readers who’ve read them in order will understand the complicated relationships and subtle nuances. For the most part, the series is a good one, and if you’re interested, I recommend starting at the beginning and reading A Great Deliverance, the book that started it all.


Sarah Allen said...

Ooh. Not my typical genre, but I may have to check this one out. Looks good. Thanks for the thoughts :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Literary Corner Cafe said...

Hi Sarah,

I go back and forth with mysteries. Right now, I like them, but only if they are very well written. I suppose my "book of choice" will always be a literary novel, though. (Non-mystery) But there's something so atmospheric about the fall that makes me want to settle in with a fire, a cup of hot cocoa, and a good mystery, one whose ending I can't guess. This book is by far not George's best, but she's getting Lynley back on track.