Playing for the Ashes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

PLAYING FOR THE ASHES is as much the story of cricket player Kenneth Fleming or of Olivia Whitelaw as it is a detective story. The novel opens with pages taken from a manuscript by Whitelaw in which she mentions being in mourning for some past event. She also introduces Fleming and her mother, Miriam Whitelaw. The primary mystery then begins with the discovery of Fleming’s body at Celandine Cottage.

Scotland Yard detectives Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers soon take over the case from the detective at the scene. Lynley’s methods increasingly come into question as he manipulates media coverage of the murder investigation for reasons known only to him.

The murder investigation does not dominate the book until near its end. Early chapters primarily are Olivia Whitelaw’s manuscript. She fills in the background story, naming characters and describing their relationships to Fleming. Fleming lived with Miriam Whitelaw and was about to divorce his wife, Jean Cooper, from whom he had been separated for several years. In addition, he was seeing Gabriella Patten, the wife of a major backer of Fleming’s cricket team, who lived at Celandine Cottage. All three women become suspects, as does Patten’s husband and Guy Mollison, the team captain. Lynley and Havers soon focus on teenager Jimmy Cooper, Jean Cooper and Kenneth Fleming’s oldest son. They are unable to accumulate enough evidence against him to make a case, however, even after he confesses to the murder. Lynley chooses to continue bringing him in for questioning rather than making an arrest on the basis of weak evidence.

Elizabeth George does a masterful job of creating a fictitious cricket superstar in Kenneth Fleming, largely through Olivia Whitelaw’s narration. Whitelaw herself is a fascinating character. Readers only slowly discover her role in the murder investigation and the secrets of her life as she narrates the background. George nicely brings all the elements of the story together, creating vivid new characters and reinvigorating detectives Lynley and Havers.