Monday, July 2, 2012

G is for Elizabeth George

The Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 has reached the letter G. I am featuring Elizabeth George for that letter. Visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter G.

Elizabeth George is a perfect example of what I look for in a mystery author. The books pull me into the narrative and I am not thinking about the style of writing, just enjoying it. The characters are well drawn and complicated. The stories are serious and sometimes dark. I am not usually looking for humor in a mystery. I like mysteries with a serious premise. I like to see growth and change in a character from book to book. (Obviously this applies more to a series). Setting matters to me, although, if you have all the other ingredients, setting is definitely down on the list. In this case, a mystery series set in the U.K.

Her main characters are Detective Inspector Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. Lynley is an aristocrat. Havers is from a working-class background. As the series begins, Havers resents working with the posh Inspector Lynley. Over time, they settle into a friendship, and have respect for each other. There are numerous secondary characters that are well portrayed and also evolve throughout the series. In some cases, for example Simon Allcourt-St James, forensic scientist, and
Deborah St James, his wife, the secondary characters often play nearly as large a part in the story as the detectives.

The Inspector Lynley series is technically in the police procedural sub-genre.  But there is usually so much going on with peripheral characters and subplots that I don't see them this way.  However, the fact that Lynley and Havers can use the resources of New Scotland Yard make the investigations more believable. I don't limit my mystery reading to police procedurals or private detective novels, but I do see them as more grounded in reality, requiring less suspension of belief (in most cases).

The first mystery in the Inspector Lynley series is A Great Deliverance. I don't remember if I read it when it was first published (1988), but I do remember being very impressed with it when I did read it. In addition to the very interesting characters, the plot was intriguing and the ending surprised me. This novel won the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award for "Best First Novel" and was also nominated for the Edgar in the same category. 

In this story, Lynley and Havers are paired for the first time and find themselves sent to Keldale Valley in Yorkshire. From the author's web site:
Fat, unlovely Roberta Teys has been found, clad in her best silk dress, seated in the great stone barn beside her father's decapitated corpse. Her first and only words were: "I did it. I'm not sorry." She has refused to speak since. The priest who found young Roberta insists the girl is innocent. The villagers, who have known the girl all of her life, concur. The local police, however, maintain that she's guilty of the brutal slaying of one of the region's most respected citizens.
It surprised me to learn that this was awarded an Agatha. I associate that award with cozies. This book is definitely not a cozy, although the important elements are there: no explicit sex, no gratuitous violence.

I read the latest book in the Inspector Lynley series, Believing the Lie, this January, shortly after it was published. Elizabeth George is one of the few mystery authors who inspire me to buy the hardback edition as soon as it is published. (Two others are Susan Hill and Kate Atkinson. Those I have to wait until the US edition comes out.)

In this story, Lynley is ordered by the Chief of New Scotland Yard to go undercover to investigate a death in Cumbria in the Lake District. He is instructed to keep his mission secret from his immediate superior (who is also his lover), creating a difficult situation.  Havers is also not included, but she ends up helping out in London, and dealing with her own personal issues.

This one was too long. There was an important story line that focused on Deborah St James, and I felt like that could have been pared down. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book. The writing always keeps me interested. And each book is different, with some characters featured more, other characters in the sidelines.

Between the first book and the most recent one, there were 15 novels in the series. The characters have gone through some major life changes and upheavals. I have not enjoyed all of the books equally, but all kept me engaged.  There was a point mid-series... I believe it was at Deception on His Mind (1996), where I gave up on the series for a while, decided it was too dark for me. I came back after a few years.

Two of the books, With No One as Witness (2005) and What Came Before He Shot Her (2006), which dealt with the death of Lynley's wife, were difficult to read. In 2010, I reread the first two books in the series and enjoyed them as much as the first time.


Peter Reynard said...

Inspector Lynley is a detective I have heard of (possibly as a TV series?) but never read. Your highlights of George's work (classic mystery, story over writing-style, UK setting) are all things I enjoy in mysteries. I think I'll have to head on over to the library and get one or two of the books.

Peggy Ann said...

I love the TV series but tried once to read her and just didn't get it finished. I will try again though, it may have just been me at that time.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - Thanks for profiling Elizabeth George. I think my favourite of her characters is Barbara Havers. She's interesting, smart and talented and so full of character and life.

TracyK said...

Margot: I agree. I am sure the next book will follow up on the Havers storyline more and I am looking forward to that.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I did enjoy the TV adaptations but have never read the books - I have no idea how close the two are though.

TracyK said...

I initially rejected the TV adaptations because they eliminate characters that I considered essential to the enjoyment of the books. Since then, I have decided TV adaptations (and movie adaptations for that matter) should be considered a separate experience, enjoy them for what they are. So I may give them a try some day.

Mary R. said...

This is a great profile of a wonderful series. I (unfortunately) read With No One As Witness first (when it came out) and have since had too much knowledge about how Lynley's relationships turn out to really enjoy those storylines in the earlier books. I highly recommend this series, but read it in order.

TracyK said...

Mary, thanks very much for the kind words. I agree that this series should be read in order. I read most series in order or not at all, but sometimes it is not really necessary.

Bev Hankins said...

I loved the Lynley books until George decided to kill off his wife. I read the one that followed it (What Came Before He Shot Her) and gave up. Careless in Red is sitting on the shelf....but I don't know if I'll ever read it. I used to devour them as soon as I could get my hands on them. I'm a bit wary of getting attached to any of the characters for fear she'll decide to kill them off too.

TracyK said...

I just plain don't like any author to kill off significant characters, because I think it makes the series difficult to read (prior books) once that has happened. There are several series where I know that happens and I am not sure I want to read the earlier books knowing that ahead of time. However, all of them are good series and I am going to have to bite the bullet and do it anyway.