Friday, November 27, 2009

Careless in Red

Warning - there are some minor spoilers for With No One As Witness

Elizabeth George hooked me the first time I read one of her novels.  For the Sake of Elena is her fifth Lynley/Havers novel, and George made her victim an unpleasant young woman who used people and painted the killer in a more sympathetic light.   Too many evil to the core killers and sweet, innocent victims cheapen the mystery genre.  Most of George's novels present a messier world, where murder isn't justified but is perhaps explicable.  The murderer acts in the heat of passion, the victim has done something horrible, and the worlds of those around the pair are shattered.

George also created an engaging and intelligent detective in Barbara Havers.  Technically, the hero of her series is Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eight Earl of Asherton, but Havers is a much more interesting character.  Lynley may be rebelling from his aristocratic upbringing by being a policeman, but it's the nature rather than the existence of his career that strikes us as unusual.  When we meet her, Barbara Havers is a bright, striving, dowdy and dumpy, working-class woman still coping with a decade-old tragedy.  She's not supposed to amount to anything - maybe work in a shop for a few years, marry, and stay in the neighborhood.  Unfortunately for her, she's ambitious, highly intelligent, and not pretty, and therefore doesn't fit in.  The first eight or nine books split their focus between Lynley and Havers, and we see her break down her defenses, gain confidence in her abilities, and eventually carry a narrative on her own.

Then, almost inexplicably, George dropped the character.  Havers dropped back, starting with A Place of Hiding, and I missed her.  She's not just the most interesting character in the series, she's also the perfect foil for her aristocratic partner and his upper-crust best friend and late wife.  Lynley is smart and a good detective, but Havers is smarter, more intuitive, and a better lateral thinker.  She plays devil's advocate and looks for alternate theories instead of trusting the evidence as it falls.  Havers-light novels just aren't as good.

Careless in Red starts out as Havers-free.  Thomas Lynley is in the 43rd day of his walk along the South-West Coast Path, not trying to forget that his pregnant wife was murdered but because walking is the only way he can keep his will to live.  On the 43rd day of his walk, he finds the body of Santo Kerne who has apparently died in a climbing accident.  Since this is a mystery novel, we know that Santo was murdered, and because we know the mysterious Thomas is actually DI Lynley of Scotland Yard we know he will help solve the case.  

George writes long novels with multiple subplots, and while I usually enjoy this aspect of her writing, I think she could have trimmed some of the threads.  The earthy orchard owner, the teenager sent to live with her grandfather because she wants to enter a convent, and the conflict between local DI Bea Hannaford and her ex-husband don't add much to the story and aren't effective red herrings.  I also wasn't impressed with how George seemed to be setting up Hannaford as a Havers substitute, but at least the character keeps the investigation moving until the real Havers shows up, all attitude and flannel PJs confronting Lynley before breakfast at the only inn in town.  Still, Careless in Red is a partial return to form.  A few characters are drawn a bit too broadly, especially Santo's nymphomaniac mother and the teenager in the midst of a religious conversion, but most of them are believable.  The identity of Santo's killer isn't obvious (although I did solve the mystery with about 50 pages to go) and I didn't feel cheated, like I did in George's last three novels.  It's worth reading if you've read the rest of the series, but I can't recommend Careless in Red as an introduction to the Lynley/Havers mysteries.  

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