Playing for the Ashes by Elizabeth George: A-

Book description:
When country milkman Martin Snell makes his usual delivery to fifteenth-century Celandine Cottage one fine spring morning in Kent, he expects to be greeted by the cottage’s seductive tenant, Gabriella Patten, not the ugly remains of a fire pointing to murder.

As all of England, as well as the magnetic world of national cricket, discovers itself reeling from the shock of this particular crime, Lynley and Havers find themselves working on the most frustrating case of their careers: the perfect crime. When in an act of desperation Lynley breaks department rules to flush out the killer, he risks being pulled from the case and jeopardizes his career with New Scotland Yard.

In Playing for the Ashes, a deft study of human nature and a crime with too much evidence result in a powerful work of fiction that pulls the reader into a fully created world to explore the dark side of passion and self-delusion.

I would normally never dream of naming the culprit in a review of a mystery novel. But your average mystery novel usually doesn’t have themes, which this one does, and exploring those requires me to divulge some essential details. Major spoilers ahead.

When Kenneth Fleming, a renowned batsman for England’s cricket team, is found dead in his lover’s rented cottage in Kent, a media frenzy ensues. Scotland Yard is called in to assist in the investigation, and Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers must get the truth out of various recalcitrant witnesses before their lack of results sees them ousted from the case. The principal cast includes Jean Cooper, Fleming’s soon-to-be ex-wife; Jimmy Cooper, his grungy and rebellious teenage son; Miriam Whitelaw, Fleming’s former teacher and current roommate and patron; Olivia Whitelaw, Miriam’s estranged daughter and frequent narrator; and Chris Farraday, animal activist and Olivia’s bargemate.

I mentioned above that this work has themes, and the central one seems to be: choices. Everyone in the story is either faced with a choice or dealing with the repercussions of a choice they made in the past. While teenagers, Fleming and Jean chose to have unprotected sex, then chose to marry and keep the baby, putting an end to his scholastic ambitions, much to Miriam Whitelaw’s dismay. Olivia Whitelaw chose to break free of her privileged life and pursue a path of debauchery and drugs.

In the present, Lynley has still not received a response to his marriage proposal to Lady Helen, and he finally insists that she decide one way or the other. Fleming chooses not to reveal that he has decided to cancel a fishing trip with his son to go to Kent and end his relationship with a promiscuous girlfriend, an omission which leads to his death, as Miriam chooses that moment to get rid of the problem girlfriend on his behalf. Jimmy chooses to follow his dad and to later confess to the crime, believing that the person he saw at the cottage that night was his mother.

Despite the objections of his superiors, Lynley chooses to bring media scrutiny down upon Jimmy to exert pressure on Olivia, who must choose whether to reveal admissions of guilt made by her mother, just when the two had achieved some measure of reconciliation brought on by Olivia’s request for help in dealing with her illness, ALS. This choice affects Farraday’s life, as well, since Olivia being in her mother’s care will allow him to spend more time with the woman he loves. Heck, even Havers faces a choice regarding whether to befriend an eight-year-old neighbor!

Another prominent theme is the comparison of platonic love and physical love. Both Olivia and her mother are living with men they love who, though they care for the Whitelaw women, don’t return their feelings in the same degree. Actually loving a man is painful for Olivia, for whom sex has always been a casual thing, since the one person she really wants to be with in that respect sees her only as a friend. Physical relationships are portrayed as fleeting and lust-driven, and George goes a bit overboard in depicting some of these, especially an awful scene occurring between a hostile young Olivia and her father. In fact, much of Olivia’s early narration is frustrating, because she is so insolent as to be borderline intolerable, but by the end of the novel she does become a sympathetic character.

On the whole, despite some unpleasant and unnecessary bits, I liked Playing for the Ashes a lot. I thought it was cleverly constructed and well written, and was impressed that it managed to convey just how much the victim would be missed by those he left behind, something many mysteries fail to do. It made me care about the characters more than the solution, and I actually got sniffly when Lady Helen (who has the best line of the novel in “I’m very nearly frivolity personified”) finally made her decision. Happily, I still have ten more books in this series to go!

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  1. […] Isabelle Ardery, a character from Playing for the Ashes who didn’t even merit a mention in my review of that book, is back, taking on the Acting Detective Superintendent role vacated by Lynley. And […]

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