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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1341

Elizabeth George’s novels are clearly descendants of Golden Age and postwar mystery novels, just as these classic mysteries are evolved from those written by nineteenth century Romantic novelists. However, her novels are distinctly different from the classic mysteries. One example of how George’s novels differ is in the nature of...

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Elizabeth George’s novels are clearly descendants of Golden Age and postwar mystery novels, just as these classic mysteries are evolved from those written by nineteenth century Romantic novelists. However, her novels are distinctly different from the classic mysteries. One example of how George’s novels differ is in the nature of the crimes in all of her mysteries. They are violent and shocking, with solutions equally horrifying, yet unforced and logical.

George’s Sir Thomas Lynley series has details that remind readers of its forebears in the realm of English mysteries. George likes to make literary allusions, sometimes general, as with her mention of Charles Dickens in a number of her mysteries, but sometimes specific. Early in A Great Deliverance, the first work in the series, Lynley hears church bells like those in Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors (1934). George, an admirer of Sayers’s work, created Sir Thomas Lynley, Earl Asherton, a figure with a background that is similar to that of Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s aristocratic detective hero. In many ways Lynley could have been a character from the Golden Age of British mystery fiction. Both Lynley and Wimsey are members of the upper class and have graduated from Eton and Oxford, where they earned first-class honors. Each has great wealth and worldly experience and has had multiple affairs with women. Each has a memorable mother and a brother who is a possible candidate for a crime. However, Lynley differs from Wimsey, who begins the series as somewhat of a clown, in having an introverted personality and a quick temper. Three-quarters of a century after the much loved and ever popular Golden Age of mystery writing, the detective novel has undergone many other changes. Whereas the cheery Wimsey is an amateur detective, Lynley is a professional with all the rules and regulations that go with his work, and his psyche from the onset is that of a darkly unhappy man with personal demons.

George, like all superior novelists, with each novel improves her writing. She strengthens the maturing protagonists, shaping them into believable human beings and making their dialogue less trivial as their daily lives become more realistic. Her readers have appreciated the changes, becoming further engrossed in the events that affect the characters.

A Great Deliverance

Elizabeth George’s first novel, A Great Deliverance, is an impressive prize winner. The novel opens in London, but the scene soon shifts to the exquisite but desolate Yorkshire countryside, where Roberta Tey, a young farm woman, has confessed to the beheading of her father. Because of the lack of significant evidence, Roberta’s confused mental state and incarceration in an asylum, and the refusal of her friends and neighbors to accept the possibility of her guilt, a difficult and complex investigation ensues. As Lynley and Havers search for the truth, many long-hidden secrets of the quiet, bucolic community are revealed. The final pages establish a pattern in George’s novel: They seldom end happily.

In 2001 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) broadcast a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) film version of A Great Deliverance in the United States.

Well-Schooled in Murder

The third Lynley mystery, Well-Schooled in Murder (1990), was also made into a film by the BBC and shown in the United States on PBS. The film has many disturbing details, but the book is even grimmer. Here, as in her introductory novel, George tears aside the curtain that hides aberrant behavior, violence, and sexual cruelty. Once more, the setting is an isolated community, but in this instance it is a private school for upper-class boys, along with a few token scholarship students. Although lip service is paid to the training and discipline of the students, breaking of the rules is common. Some faculty members have secrets that they are concerned will come to light, so bullies take advantage of their weakness and gain control over other students. The administrators do not want to know about drugs, beatings, or sexual intimidation because their priority is maintaining endowments and enrollment. Lynley becomes involved through a friend’s request when one of the scholarship boys goes missing. Betrayal, murders, and suicide follow.

A Suitable Vengeance

George’s fourth mystery, A Suitable Vengeance, provides a valuable backdrop for a number of the Lynley stories. The novel reveals the history of the major protagonist, Detective Inspector Lynley, his alienation from his mother and younger brother, and his reluctance to visit the family estate in Cornwall, his birthplace. Although the introductory segments of the story are set in London, the crucial part of the novel takes place in Cornwall. George describes in full detail the magnificent Jacobean house, the outbuildings, dairy farms, agricultural areas, church, and stables that make up the grounds of the Asherton holdings, alongside the Atlantic ocean. Flying his own plane, Lynley brings his party of guests to his ancestral home for a celebration of his engagement to Deborah Cotter. The engagement is broken off as events unfold. Inasmuch as the first novel described Deborah’s wedding to St. James, it is clear that George’s concern is greater expansion of her characters’ lives rather than creating a linear, chronological tale.

With No One as Witness

Written fourteen years after A Suitable Vengeance, With No One as Witness provides a pivotal change of direction in George’s work. George turns her attention, in this and the novel that follows, to people and places in London that resemble the nineteenth century world of Dickens. Problem boys, some who have been in prison, mostly poor and uneducated, are required to attend a school ironically called Colossus. Many of the faculty have questionable credentials and little interest in the boys. The school is located not far from a ragtag, covered flea market frequented by characters who could have come from the unsettling paintings of fifteenth and sixteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Both the school and the market as well as the shabby nearby neighborhoods are venues for thieves, pedophiles, pimps, and murderers. A serial killer of young boys, an ambitious police supervisor, and an amoral reporter bring Lynley and Havers into an investigation that leads to unforeseen tragedy.

What Came Before He Shot Her

What Came Before He Shot Her (2006) does not feature the investigative work of Lynley, although Havers appears briefly near the end of the book. This work is inextricably linked to With No One as a Witness because of the crime that occurred; yet, it can hardly be deemed a mystery. The reader knows what the end will be, and that knowledge makes the tragedy more grievous.

Most of the individuals in the story are of mixed race, poor, and generally uneducated. Many are children of immigrants, the colonial inheritors of Britain’s empire, unwanted citizens. The story is set in a section of London so different from the familiar areas of George’s fiction that it seems a totally unknown world. Many of the inhabitants living in the slums of North Kensington have never been to the areas of London familiar to much of the civilized world.

Drugs are sold and distributed by gangs and crime lords who control the streets. Rape is common. An ineffective and corrupt police force metes out its own form of justice, in a pitiless and crushing system. In the miasma of failure and doom that encloses the plot, the reader fears there is no hope for the three children who are central to the story. They are abandoned by their feckless grandmother on the doorstep of her daughter, their well-intentioned aunt. However, neither she nor a few kind members of the community can save the children from a fate that has been determined by earlier events.

As if in a Greek tragedy, the final segment of the novel is a recapitulation and enlargement of scenes from the previous novel: Deborah St. James and Helen Lynley arrive at the Lynley home after a shopping trip in preparation for the birth of the Lynley baby. There a fatal shooting occurs, and the preordained calamity plays out.

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