Sunday, August 7, 2011

This Body of Death

Elizabeth George used to be one of my favorite authors.  Her Inspector Lynley mysteries are complex and populated by interesting characters, but around 2003 (5 books ago), she hit a serious slump, and I put her 'on probation.'  She began to redeem herself with Careless in Red, and while This Body of Death isn't quite up to the level of Playing for the Ashes or In the Presence of the Enemy, I am once again looking forward to her next book.  

Meredith Powell fell out with her best friend Jemima Hastings over Jemima's then-new boyfriend.  Nearly two years later, Meredith decides on their shared birthday to swallow her pride and restart their friendship, but Jemima had left town a few months earlier, and the corpse found in a London cemetery the previous day turns out to be Jemima's.  Acting Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery is the primary on the case, and after a rough initial meeting with her team, she asks Lynley, still on compassionate leave after his wife's death, to work with her.  As they investigate from London, DS Barbara Havers and DS Winston Nkata search the New Forrest town where Jemima had lived, and find more questions than answers about Jemima's ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend.  Just as they're making progress, Ardery calls them back to London where she's slowly losing control of the case.  Barbara does, eventually, discover the killer, through a combination of logic, insubordination, and luck, but it's not the tidiest solution.  It feels a bit as if George realized that after 950 pages of plot, subplot, 'colorful' side characters, and false leads, she had to find a way to end the book.  There's no 'cheating' on the solution, but it doesn't feel totally natural.

I had a few other minor issues with This Body of Death.  The first involves timeline - I realize that few mystery series allow characters to age in real time, but with the nearly two year gap between the publication of each novel in the series and how two recent volumes occurred simultaneously, This Body of Death takes place only 14 months after Playing for the Ashes which I read in 1996 and the time compression is a bit jarring.  As I said above, some of the characters (particularly Jemima's landlady and a local psychic) were a bit too 'colorful' for my taste and a good editor might have trimmed some of their eccentricities and tightened the character development scenes for Isabelle Ardery.  

What I loved about the book was the return of Barbara Havers.  Part of George's slump was due to the near (or total) disappearance of her most compelling character.  Havers is bright, insecure, intuitive, stubborn, and the character who most clearly comes to life in every novel.  In the Havers-light books, I missed her dry sarcasm and her determination to follow her (usually correct) hunches.  Most of all, I missed her complicated relationships with Lynley, Deborah, and Simon, and her budding friendship with her neighbors.  The highlight of the book for me was when Barbara, at Ardery's order, tries to improve her look and asks 9-year-old Hadiyyah for advice.  The passage where the defiantly schlumpy Havers gets the Trinny and Susannah treatment from her young neighbor made the entire book worthwhile.

Remembered Death/Sparkling Cyanide

I'm not sure how many times I've read Sparkling Cyanide since the mid-80s.  My copy was in storage for about a decade, but there were years where I read it more than once so this is about the 15th re-read.  The cover (yellow, with "Agatha Christie" in large blue letters and "Remembered Death" in slightly smaller reddish-brown print, above a small picture of a man and two women in evening dress superimposed on a skull) began to fall off during this reading and is now held on with packing tape, and the cover price is $2.95 - these, as well as the yellowing pages, are a testament to years of comfort reading.

Christie really is comfort reading.  When I take one of the dozen or so I've read multiple times off the shelf, I know I'll get a well-plotted mystery without too much gore, usually populated by attractive, wealthy, and entertaining characters.  They're clever, but not too taxing - the perfect antidote to a stressful week.

Sparkling Cyanide is one of Christie's "murder in retrospect" novels, with a present-day murder added to spark the plot.  Beautiful, vain, Rosemary Barton apparently committed suicide at her birthday dinner held in an expensive London restaurant.   A year later, her husband George holds a dinner at the same restaurant with the same guests - Rosemary's sister Iris who inherited her sister's fortune; Rosemary's two lovers, the mysterious Anthony Browne and rising politician Stephen Farraday, Farraday's wife Sandra; and George's secretary Ruth Lessing.  As he's about to announce that Rosemary was murdered, he dies, as his wife did, by drinking champagne laced with cyanide.  Five suspects with five strong motives - and yet none of them could have killed either Barton, let alone both.  It's a typical Christie plot, solved in 190 pages with just enough coincidence to be believable.  

Dame Agatha populated the story with beautiful, wealthy people untouched by the Depression and WWII, dancing in posh frocks and dinner jackets - miles away both physically and emotionally from the Underground station where she undoubtedly worked on the manuscript during the London Blitz.  Her 1943 audience read Sparkling Cyanide as a relief from the horrors of the day, but it also works as a teenager's transition into adult literature and a bored project attorney's mental escape from the tedium of her job.  It's not a taxing read, but with scattered references to fashion, history, and Shakespeare, also not quite as shallow as it may appear.  Sparkling Cyanide is an old friend, and I'm already looking forward to the next time we meet.