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The Edge of Suspense

Elizabeth George has written forty-four books, of which twenty are novels of criminal and psychological suspense featuring Scotland Yard and the iconic Inspector Thomas Lynley. She is fascinated by the evil in our nature and explores the manifestations of the criminal mind. Her novels with intricate plots have complex characters. In her psychological mysteries, she examines the motivations for murder. Conflicts appear within the family, the apparent edifice of solidarity and loyalty. Rebellion and betrayal within this edifice loom large in her stories.

George is an American, though the setting of the stories is in the English countryside. She takes great pains to remain authentic by extensive research into the location and the background. Her frequent travel to England renders her understanding of contemporary British society complete. George’s fans have come to know and love her recurring cast of characters. We meet the aristocrat-turned detective inspector Thomas Lynley for the first time in A Great Deliverance. His no-nonsense working-class assistant Barbara Havers is another well-etched character. His friend and associate St. James make occasional appearances. So does his wife Deborah; Lynley’s unfulfilled romance. Then there is Lady Helen, Lynley’s love and would-be wife, who meets a tragic end as the stories progress. The supporting characters comprise a Pakistani, Taymullah Azhar and his little daughter, Hadiyyah, who are friends with Barbara. Hovering in the background is the Scotland Yard establishment.

Lynley’s persona matches the characteristics of the novel perfectly. He is complex, multi-dimensional, driven. He is aristocracy, the eighth Earl of Asherton. Oxford-educated Lynley comes from a circumstance of privilege. His commitment to his cases in total. Strongly emotional, he immerses himself passionately is his cases. Lynley has absolute commitment to hsi job, which makes him do wreckless things and get into conflicts with his superiors. In an exposition on her craft (1) she says: “The crime and its solution provide a natural structure on which I can hang as much or as little as I like. On the structure of the crime, I can hang theme, subplot, character development, and anything else from the writer’s bag of tricks and the fundamentals of fiction. I can take the readers’ preconceived notions about what a crime novel is and turn those notions on their heads. In short, a crime novel gives me tremendous flexibility as a writer…”

On her character development, she says: “She decided to let Lynley solve a case on his own. Giving him a charge meant giving him a partner, so she designed Barbara Havers to work with him. As characters, they are the opposites. George chooses Havers to introduce Lynley to the readers. In the beginning, Barbara hated him so much, and since she was pretty unlikable, the reader is driven to sympathize with Lynley”.

That novel was A Great Deliverance. It was the first of George’s published books, set in Keldale Abbey, with a dark past. Roberta Teys has been found with an axe in her lap, claiming to have killed her father. Yet as Lynley and Havers wade their way through Abbey’s pool of scandals and crimes, they stumble upon revelations that will shatter the tranquillity of this countryside. The story’s beginning finds Sergeant Havers recently demoted because of her inability to co-operate with her colleagues. This murder investigation is a test for her. If she successfully helps Lynley, she’ll have the chance to be taken back into the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the British Police. Havers has a working-class background, and she also takes care of sick and ageing parents, a commitment that drains her mentally and financially. The fact that promotion to the CID would give her an escape from her constrained circumstances is a strong enough motivation. Havers resents the aristocratic Lynley, a reason for the suppressed tension at the beginning of their relationship.

Their first contact happens in a wedding when Havers and Lynley meet under trying circumstances, when both are not in the best of spirits. Issues of class resentment hound their working relationship. But the persistent bickering reveals the slow thawing of their friction and growing affection between two detectives, opposites in personality. Lynley hails from the aristocracy, while Havers comes from a working-class background and has been badly affected by her upbringing.

Barbara Havers might be one of the outstanding detectives in fiction. However, being a rebel and misfit, she does not get the respect due to her. The added cause is her persistent refusal to alter her appearance or behaviour. Havers’ sartorial style is built around T-shirts with risqué declarations and roomy pants. The fact that she chops off her hair with any sharp device which comes in handy does not help her. Her cigarette smoking also works against her.

Her last outing in Just One Evil Act has put a target on her back. Havers is unpopular with the police establishment, including her immediate boss, Detective Chief Inspector Isabelle Ardery, and Sir David Hillier’s Assistant Commissioner. The charge against Havers was that she had travelled to Italy without permission to recover the kidnapped daughter of her neighbour, Taymullah Azhar. This act placed Havers’ life in jeopardy. Ardery, driven to frustration by the repeated acts of rebellion, wants to banish Havers forever to some forsaken place in the interiors.

Isabelle Ardery is an alcoholic who has messed up her personal life. She lost custody of her children after being divorced by her husband. He, after remarriage, is shifting to New Zealand. Ardery is furious that she would lose custody of her twins. However, she cannot give up alcohol, which worsens her situation.

Barbara and Azhar are neighbours and friends. Hadiyyah is fond of Barbara, and the feelings are mutual. Angelina Upman, the child’s mother, arranges to have the little girl kidnapped at a village market, leaving no trace, and Barbara is devastated. Inspector Lynley and Barbara soon realise that the case is more convoluted than a mere kidnapping. The case reveals secrets that have effects that transcend the investigation.

Elizabeth George has the gift of delivering engaging, well-honed characters along with a challenging story. She offers a sea of red herrings that would titillate armchair detectives. Suppose a reader wants to float along with the flow; that works exceptionally well, too. George uses suspense and tension for novels that readers don’t want to put down.

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