Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Return of Inspector Lynley

Crack open an Elizabeth George book, and you can count on a few things. One, you might as well plan on devoting a couple of entire days to it--or spending at least a week leisurely wending your way through it--because the volume you’ve just sat down with will most assuredly be a hefty tome. Two, it will be such an intricately-plotted and intimately-personal tale that you’d swear you’re reading a combination of eyewitness and first-person accounts of actual events (rather than figments of a writer’s vivid and somewhat twisted imagination). And, third, you’ll get the pleasure of catching up with a sublimely-motley assortment of old friends (plus a handful of annoying acquaintances, the likes of which none of us seem able to escape) if you’re an old fan of her stories... or you’ll find the thrill of meeting them all for the very first time, if you’ve somehow never taken the plunge. 
George is actually something of an anomaly in her field; she’s an American author--not an ex-pat, either; she lives in Washington state--who writes British procedural mysteries. But really, to call her a “mystery” writer is to utterly miss two-thirds of what she manages to accomplish with her writing; George is a very fine novelist, whose work delves deeply within the hearts and minds of man--exposing the flaws, the twisted logic, the repressed feelings, the perverse pleasures, the secret desires, the hidden longings (as well as every other little oddball thing that makes us tick)--and showing why we make the choices that we do. To read her books is a lesson in the human psyche, and a primer on  how relationships do (and don’t) work.
The latest entry in her series (commonly known as “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries”) is This Body of Death, and it numbers either fifteen or sixteen (depending on whether or not you count one that is only very tangentially-related as part of the series or not). It’s a very good addition to a nearly-uniformly excellent body of work.
Let me lay down a bit of background for any newbies. The series revolves around a small group of detectives working for Scotland Yard, with Inspector Lynley as the nominal main focus Lynley is a very wealthy, very proper (as well as intelligent, witty, handsome, likable, and just plain decent) detective who also happens (somewhat perversely) to belong to the aristocracy. He wears Savile Row suits, has a butler, and drives a Bentley (or he did, before his partner wrecked it). So, no, he doesn’t “need” to work... but he does like to be challenged, and he wants to make a difference.
In a move reminiscent of The Odd Couple, his higher-ups long ago partnered him with his polar opposite: a dumpy (by her own admission) little woman from the wrong side of town, whose idea of fashion is baggy trousers paired with red high-tops, and who drives a beat-up Mini (that long ago saw its best decade) and rents a tiny little “apartment” not much bigger than a gardening shed. But, whatever Barbara Havers may lack in her sartorial choices or other lack of “polish”, she makes up for with her fine mind, dogged determination, and a genuinely kind heart. 
Although their pairing was initially done to spite them both--putting the popular fellow with the troublesome, mouthy (and distinctly not-popular) female--the two quickly developed a mutual respect, which has grown over the years into a real friendship. (Yes, they’re still opposites in many ways--including all the outward trappings--but their minds function as parts of the same, overall whole.) Theirs is a just a really neat partnership, devoid of any “will-they-or-won’t-they” flirting, and watching them play off each other is always great fun. (Plus, Barbara Havers is one of my favorite female characters of all time, incredibly “real” in her emotions and reactions. She is simply... wonderful.)
When This Body of Death picks up, a new candidate is trying out for the recently-vacated position of department chief, and luck of the draw sticks Isabelle Ardery with a real mess of a case to try to wow her superiors by solving: the mysterious murder of a young woman found stabbed in a mostly-forgotten old London cemetery. Quickly catching onto the fact that the members of her new team don’t trust her, Ardery pleads her case with Lynley, nearly begging him to return to the team. (He has been on compassionate leave these last several months following the shocking--and random--death of his wife, along with their unborn child.) Still not sure he’s “ready” to return, Lynley nonetheless acquiesces, returns on a trial basis.
His colleagues are relieved; they had been sorely missing his leadership, and have been unsettled by the revolving superintendents (as a new chief is sought following the passing of the previous one). Lynley settles in once more, albeit in a more subordinate position, with Ardery using him as her right-hand man as she tries to learn the ropes. 
The case takes members of the team all over London, searching first for the dead woman’s identity, and then--once that’s been established--for her old digs, habits, friends, and possible enemies. It also takes part of the team--the part including Barb Havers--to the New Forest, a rural area several hours remote from London, where ponies are allowed to run free, and many historic homes still have thatched roofs.
The various trails the team follows are confusing and conflicting. In London, there are ex-boyfriends (who are also boarding-house mates) to look at, as well as the elderly boarding-house owner (who also likes one of the exes) and a sham-psychic to consider. (That’s what Lynley is helping Ardery with... while she deals privately with the constant clashing with various members of her team, throughout the day, by way of airline bottles of vodka--and plenty of breath mints and gum--stashed in her handbag.) Meanwhile, in the New Forest, the dead woman’s brother and her best (though estranged) girlfriend have been worried about her, and an ex-not-quite-fiance (and his new girlfriend) have... not been worried about her. Throw in some ancient Roman coins, stolen ponies, rusty tools, a shady country police officer, and the dead woman’s car--still garaged at her ex’s--and all her clothes--left behind, now boxed up in the ex’s attic, and you’ve got the gist of the mess the team must unravel to see justice done. 
Another very interesting thing George has done with this book is to interweave (fictional) accounts of an absolutely horrifying crime, committed by three children. How she works that completely-separate storyline into the framework of the larger one is simply brilliant.
By the time you’ve reached the end of the book, most of the questions are answered, and some justice is, indeed, to be had. Things are hardly tied up with pretty little foofy bows, though; George writes with a (frequently) gut-wrenching sense of reality. People make decisions, and they all-too-often wind up hurting others. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not; sometimes permanently. In the end, what is left are the people who must pick up the pieces and try to reassemble them into some sort of manageable entity, a new reality.
And that is something they nearly always do.
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)
     

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