Why Elizabeth George isn’t a mega-famous writer I will never know. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe she is. All I know is that if I were at a party and mentioned Stephen King or Nora Roberts, everyone would know who I was talking about; if I mentioned Elizabeth George, I bet I’d be met with many more blank looks. Which is a shame, because she’s one of the finest writers I’ve ever ever ever read.
Even if you are a mystery lover, you may not have read Elizabeth George. This is because, while she is an American writer, she writes mysteries in the English style. American crime fiction tends to be fast-paced, bodies being thrown out a window or otherwise dispatched every other chapter or so. British crime fiction, conversely, tends to have a slower pace, giving much more emphasis on character. You question such a gross generalization, you say? No less a writer than P.D. James has said:
The American crime novel seems to be very much in the hard-boiled tradition that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War – the end of puritanism, the Depression, Prohibition, gangsterism and so on. Your heroes tend to be tough and sensational, reacting very instinctively to danger and absorbing more punishment. Your stories are also generally set in a more violent society. While on the whole the British detective story is gentler, more pastoral. Because it is firmly rooted in the soil of British literary tradition, it shares assumptions that are strong in our literature; for example, the assumption that we live in an intelligible and benevolent universe; the assumption that law and order, peace and tranquillity are the norm; that crime and violence are the aberration; and that the proper preoccupation of man is to bring order out of chaos.
But back to Elizabeth George. Her latest novel, Careless in Red, is a continuation of the series of detective novels focusing on Sir Thomas Lynley, formerly of Scotland Yard. This is actually a magnificent book to read as a stand-alone way to enter the series, if you’ve never read the previous novels and don’t want to start at the beginning with A Great Deliverance. That’s because Lynley is essentially starting anew in this novel. Having recently lost his wife and unborn son to a horrific random murder, he’s resigned from Scotland Yard and run away from the violence of his world. Unfortunately, violence continues to follow him and he happens upon a death in the cliffside surfing town of Casvelyn.
Where George excels is her characters. There are no bit players in her novels. Every character having any relevance to the story has a full history and is utterly three-dimensional. Offhand, I can think of at least 12 major characters in this book, all of whom have sections devoted to their points of view. And yet the reader is never for an instant lost or left to wonder whose character is talking or did what to whom. She also describes her setting to the extent that it seems as real as the next room, and describes it in ways that give insight to the characters as well. For instance, when Lynley is first seen walking along the cliffsides, she writes:
A site marked the edge of the high pasture he’d been following and he climbed it and paused, waiting for the landscape to stop swimming in front of him long enough for him to find the descent to what would be yet another cove. He’d lost count of the inlets he’d come upon in his walk along the undulating coast. He had no idea what this one was called, any more than he’d been able to name the others.
This passage not only describes the landscape, but also Lynley’s grief-induced exhaustion and apathy.
Elizabeth George deserves to be read. She’s one of the very best there is.
By the way, if you want to debate the fine differences between American and British crime fiction, or if you disagree that there are any differences, fire away in the comments. I’ll take on all comers.