Missing Joseph by Elizabeth George: B+

From the back cover:
Deborah and Simon St. James have taken a holiday in the winter landscape of Lancashire, hoping to heal the growing rift in their marriage. But in the barren countryside awaits bleak news: the vicar of Winslough, the man they had come to see, is dead—a victim of accidental poisoning. Unsatisfied with the inquest ruling and unsettled by the close association between the investigating constable and the woman who served the deadly meal, Simon calls in his old friend Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley. Together they uncover dark, complex relationships in this rural village, relationships that bring men and women together with a passion, with grief, or with the intention to kill.

Peeling away layer after layer of personal history to reveal the torment of a fugitive spirit, Missing Joseph is award-winning author Elizabeth George’s greatest achievement.

Somehow, I had formed the impression that Missing Joseph was all about Deborah St. James—whom I frequently find irksome—and her baby angst. Because of that, I put off reading it for quite a while until I was so strongly in the mood for an Elizabeth George mystery that no amount of histrionics would be able to dissuade me. As it turns out, it’s hardly about that at all and though Deborah learns an Important Lesson by the book’s end, she doesn’t play a very large role.

Deborah and Simon St. James have been going through a rough period in their marriage, because she is fixated on having a biological child, although doctors have cautioned against this, while Simon would be fine adopting one. They agree to put this fundamental disagreement aside and go on holiday to Lancashire. On their first evening in the village of Winslough, Simon hears a troubling story about the local constable and his ladyfriend, who has recently been investigated for the death of the vicar. The death was ruled an accident—she fed him hemlock at dinner, which apparently bears some resemblance to wild parsnip—but the fact that she and the constable are romantically involved is suspicious, so Simon calls Lynley to investigate the case.

I love mysteries where the story is sometimes told from the point of view of possible culprits, and Missing Joseph delivers admirably on this score. It’s very different from something like Naked Heat, which features celebrity caricatures for suspects instead of fully fleshed-out regular people. The primary cast, aside from the regulars, is the constable, the ladyfriend, her rebellious tween daughter, and the vicar’s housekeeper. Relationships are intertwined and secrets are closely kept, and it was quite fascinating watching Lynley slowly unravel the facts of the case. The manner of the vicar’s death was never in doubt, and yet I could not predict the outcome.

With all this praise, why a mere B+? I’ll answer in the form of some advice for the author.

Dear Ms. George:

When writing an overweight character whom you intend to describe as a “whale,” whose gait is lumbering, whose “bulk” is “enormous,” whose flesh feels like “a quadruple batch of lumpy bread dough,” it is probably best not to stipulate their exact weight. You see, some Americans are quite capable of converting stone into pounds and might realize, in so doing, that this character does not weigh so much more than they themselves do.

If you must write about an overweight character in these terms, which I strongly discourage, it would be better to leave some of the details to the reader’s imagination.

Grumpily yours,

There are a few minor problems, as well. Deborah and Simon have evidently been having this argument about biological versus adopted children for a while now, but it’s not until they go on holiday that he actually asks her why she’s so intent on having biological kids. Simon may be a highly logical man, but he’s not an insensitive one; I found it far-fetched that he would not have posed this question right away. Also, Deborah is irritatingly dense in the moments before she learns her Important Lesson, which makes it even more cheesy. Still, it might bode well for a lessening of future angst. We shall see.

All in all, I enjoyed Missing Joseph quite a lot and it has rekindled my desire to get caught up on the Lynley mysteries. Expect to see more in the near future!

Did you enjoy this article? Consider supporting us.


  1. Ha, yeah, is this the one where she’s all about the enormous obese person who weighs like 220lbs or something?

    Somehow I totally forgot the plot of this one!! I had apparently completely mixed it up with ‘A Place of Hiding’ which is the book in the series that does totally star the St. James duo and pretty much none of the other regulars.

    • She weighs more than 220, but yeah, definitely fewer than 300! I was envisioning someone in the 450-500 range!

      Uh-oh about A Place of Hiding. Does this mean I haven’t escaped Deborah angst after all?

  2. It’s been a few years since I read it. There was some stupidity, iirc, but it wasn’t related so much to the angsting.

Speak Your Mind