Random Reads 3/29/17

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Dairdre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption in Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and whose bodily proportions are repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.

Catching Up with Lynley and Havers

carelessinredCareless in Red
It’s been a while since I talked about an Elizabeth George book on the blog. I did read With No One as Witness, but spent so long digesting my reaction to the surprise ending (which had, admittedly, been spoiled for me by the author’s website) that I forgot many of the other details. And I started the next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, but as it doesn’t revolve around our main characters and is massively depressing, I quickly abandoned it. Skipping ahead to Careless in Red runs counter to my typical completist sensibilities, but I’m glad I did, even if it is rather lame in various respects.

In short, a murder has been committed in a surfing town in Cornwall where many of the residents are sex-obsessed. The culprit is revealed to be exactly who I thought it was (though I didn’t know why) and then everyone proceeds to have a sudden change of heart. The much-put-upon husband casts off his horrid wife. The rebellious son decides to make a sincere attempt at learning his father’s business. The cantankerous grandpa decides to honor his granddaughter’s wish to become a nun. (Seriously, why were they even in this book? Their only contribution to the mystery was that the victim had once made a comment to the girl that she relayed to the police.) At least Lynley is the protagonist in this one and, even though we aren’t treated to any sections from her point of view, Havers has a decent role, as well. I swear she just brightened up the whole book when she appeared. I do so love Havers.

thisbodyofdeathThis Body of Death
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 boy, is she unsympathetic. She’s an alcoholic for one and makes several bad decisions (often seemingly out of pride or pique) regarding the case at hand (a young woman has been murdered in a local cemetery). She is able, though, to get Lynley to come back to Scotland Yard, and in the end the thoroughly broken pair ends up as lovers. While I do not like her at all, it is at least in character for Lynley to have terrible taste in women (Deborah, anyone?) aside from Lady Helen.

Havers has more to do this time (yay!) but I object to some extreme rationalization at the end regarding her unwillingness to call for backup. Yes, Havers is very stubborn, but I just got the feeling that George knew a reasonable officer would’ve called for backup in the situation Havers found herself in, but in order to get her big, dramatic conclusion to work, she had to get Havers to wait. Also, is George trying to insinuate that Havers is in love with Lynley? Her reaction to Lynley and Ardery’s relationship makes me wonder. I really don’t want this to be true. They should be like Donna and The Doctor.

Overall, though, This Body of Death is an improvement over Careless in Red. The case is more interesting and twisty, with various elements that connect well in ways I did not predict. The only really obvious revelation—and I’m honestly not sure it was supposed to be a surprise to the reader, given the way the book is structured—regards one character’s involvement in a past crime. Not the best Elizabeth George, but not terrible, either.

believingthelieBelieving the Lie
AUGH! I HATE DEBORAH ST. JAMES SO FREAKING MUCH! I mean, I have intensely disliked her for some time, but her idiotic actions in this book, most irritatingly excused by Lynley and Simon, have caused my feelings to progress into outright hatred. When Lynley is tasked with quietly verifying that the accidental drowning of a rich dude’s nephew really was an accident, he enlists Simon and Deborah’s help. Deborah, true to irrational form, becomes obsessed with ferreting out a secret held by one of the peripheral characters and ends up running off on her own to pursue it, which ultimately leads to tragedy. And, of course, it all has to do with having babies, which is Deborah’s primary fixation, even though she’s such a damned moron that I’d feel bad for any kid growing up under her care.

The rest of the book wasn’t so great, either. Though it finishes with much drama, it starts off terribly dull. One subplot I could’ve done without entirely involved a tabloid reporter who was having trouble finding a story salacious enough to suit his editor. He ultimately served almost no purpose whatsoever, except to give Deborah a ride on several occasions. And I was mad at myself for getting a bit misty-eyed over the resolution to another subplot, since it replicates almost exactly one that appeared just two books ago! Lynley seems to be sleepwalking through most of what occurs, and though something spurs him at the end to begin trying to move on from Helen’s death, I’m not exactly sure what that was.

Once again, the best bits were the Havers bits. The volume ends with a cliffhanger that will lead us into the next book, and I’m glad I won’t have to wait years for it. I’m a little worried that Barbara is going to do something to jeopardize her career at Scotland Yard, but if it can lead to happiness in her personal life, or even a glimmer of hope for future happiness, it will probably be worth it.

justoneevilactJust One Evil Act
I wanted so much to love this book, but it persisted in being so thoroughly frustrating and awful that in the end, I very nearly hate it instead.

Angelina Upman, mother of Havers’ sweet nine-year-old neighbor Hadiyyah, returns to her former lover’s life briefly before absconding with her daughter to Italy, where her new man awaits. Azhar (Hadiyyah’s father) does something stupid to try to get Hadiyyah back, Angelina eventually ends up dead, and Barbara does so very, very many thunderingly stupid things throughout that she’s probably tarnished forever now in my eyes, which makes me quite sad indeed. It’s completely in character for her to do what she can for Azhar. I mean, I get that, and I get how he and his daughter are practically the only thing in her life besides her job, but she persists in believing she can bend a tabloid journalist to her will, but it only ever gets her further into the shit. (Meanwhile, readers are treated to innumerable, interminable conversations between the two of them. George also throws in tons of random Italian words throughout; it’s both annoying and pretentious.)

I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer. Instead, the best parts of this book were other people, namely Lynley, who makes progress in getting over Helen, and the charming Italian detective, who seems kind of sweet on Barbara.

It literally took me months to finish this. I cannot recommend it. And yet… can I give up a series I have stuck with for so long? Time will tell, I suppose.

A Place of Hiding by Elizabeth George

From the back cover:
A shocking murder calls forensic scientist Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, to an isolated island in the English Channel. An old friend of Deborah’s, China River, stands accused of killing the island’s wealthiest benefactor, Guy Brouard. There is little evidence pointing to China—and Deborah and Simon are certain that their friend didn’t murder the inveterate womanizer. But if China didn’t kill Brouard, who did?

As family and friends gather for the reading of the will, Deborah and Simon find that seemingly everyone on the history-haunted island has something to hide. And behind all the lies and alibis, a killer is lurking.

Every once in a while, a strange thing happens to me: I get an incredibly strong craving to read a mystery by Elizabeth George. This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve only got five left now ’til I’m current, and I wonder what’ll happen then. Anyway, in the case of A Place of Hiding this craving was strong enough to trump the off-putting fact that this novel prominently features Deborah St. James, a character whom I dislike most intensely.

Before I get into the ways in which Deborah caused me to contemplate violence upon her fictional person, I should probably talk about the actual mystery, such as it is. Guy Brouard, wealthy war orphan and inveterate womanizer, has been killed on the island of Guernsey the morning following a party announcing his plans for a war museum. Among the attendees was China River, an American and old friend of Deborah’s, who has now been arrested for the crime. China’s brother, Cherokee, comes to London to enlist the aid of Deborah and her forensic scientist husband, Simon, in proving his sister’s innocence.

Simon’s credentials convince the local force to allow him to poke around, and he, as one might assume, soon discovers additional suspects with various motives. He also entrusts Deborah with an important piece of evidence, and when she fails to do with it what he requested, he gets chewed out about it by the local DCI, which obviously leaves him feeling rightfully irritated with her. Deborah fails to see how this is her fault, and indulges in repeated hissy fits about how Simon views his rational approach to the investigation (and life in general) as superior to her own “passionate, unpredictable” one.

This eventually culminates in Deborah idiotically interrupting a stakeout and, once again, making Simon look unprofessional in front of the local police. Elizabeth George tries so hard to make us sympathize with Deborah that she introduces characteristics in Simon that I had never before noticed, like a patronizing form of sexism. So now, not only do I hate Deborah, she’s making me start to dislike Simon, too! Great.

Some of the secondary characters are fairly odious, too, but honestly I am ready to put them (and this book) behind me. I will say, however, that this is the first Elizabeth George novel to ever make me cry happy tears (the last scene involving Paul Fielder), so it’s obviously not all bad.

I, Richard by Elizabeth George

Book description:
Hailed by The New York Times as “a master of the British mystery,” award-winning author Elizabeth George is one of our most distinguished writers, cherished by readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first collection of short stories is an extraordinary offering that deftly explores the dark side of everyday people—and the lengths to which they will go to get what they want most…

In these five tantalizing and original tales, George plumbs the depths of human nature—and human weakness—as only she can. From the chilling tale of a marriage built on an appalling set of lies that only death can reveal, to the final, title story about a penniless schoolteacher whose ambition turns murderous, I, Richard is filled with page-turning drama, danger, and unmatched suspense.

Whether the setting is urban or suburban, affluent or middle class, no one is safe from menace. Thanks to Inspector Thomas Lynley, a squabbling group of Anglophiles discovers a killer in its midst. But little help is on hand when a picture-perfect town is shattered by an eccentric new resident’s horrifying pet project. And when a wealthy husband is haunted by suspicions about his much-younger wife, it becomes clear that a man’s imagination can be his own worst enemy…

Well. That was different! And not, I’m afraid, in a terribly good way. I’ve furnished ample avidence of my admiration for George’s mystery novels in the past (and intend to read more of them in future), but I wasn’t too enamored of these short stories, primarily because most are variations on the theme of “things go wrong for the unsympathetic protagonist.” And that is not my favorite theme upon which to dwell. But let us forge onward into specifics!

“Exposure” is a rewrite of an earlier story, “The Evidence Exposed.” It concerns a group of Americans taking a summer course in The History of British Architecture who have come to Abinger Manor, residence of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley’s aunt, for a tour. The characters are the highlight of this one, and though the crime is rather silly and the culprit’s motive murky, I still rather liked some of the quick portraits painted of those enrolled in the class. Lynley doesn’t get much to do, though, and poor Helen is relegated to being charming without actually, if I recall rightly, having a line of dialogue.

“The Surprise of His Life” is, ironically, possessed of an utterly predictable conclusion. After a lengthy introduction, in which George reveals drawing inspiration from the alleged crimes of O. J. Simpson, we meet a wealthy businessman who has begun seeing a psychic. She warns him to expect an external shock, so he goes off into all these flights of fancy about his wife having an affair and hires a private investigator who takes pictures of her with another man and… it’s just so obvious what’s going to happen that waiting for it to actually occur is maddening.

“Good Fences Aren’t Always Enough” is a weird little tale about the residents of Napier Lane, who are striving to be designated as one of their town’s Perfect Places to Live, and the small, grey, Russian immigrant whose overgrown, rat-infested yard stands in their way. Willow McKenna, a former foster child now obsessed with the idea of a big family and cozy community, is a fairly likeable lead and this, at least, didn’t end like I thought it was going to. It was a lot more… ordinary, in the end.

“Remember I’ll Always Love You” is the second story to feature a couple’s life ruined by extreme suspicion. Charlie Lawton’s husband, Eric, has just died at the age of 42. As she seeks out his parents, Charlie begins to realize that Eric was keeping a lot of things from her. A lot of really, really major things that are so out-of-left-field that she’s left reeling. This story is sort of admirably constructed in terms of what you think you know that it turns out you didn’t really know, but it feels flat somehow.

Lastly we have the title story, “I, Richard,” which contained both the high points and low points of the collection for me. I intensely disliked Malcolm Cousins, the ambitious would-be historian who has been engaged in an affair with the wife of a friend with the express purpose of coming into possession of a prized artifact when that friend should finally succumb to a weak heart. Malcolm is a sleazy git who gets what he deserves, but George uses him as a mouthpiece for some exonerating theories in support of Richard III, and that part I liked. The challenge is, of course, writing a modern-day story concerned with Richard III and not having it be too much like Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time, and George succeeds in that regard, I suppose.

Ultimately, this isn’t essential reading for fans of the Lynley/Havers mystery series. Lynley appears briefly in a story, but does very little, and there’s absolutely no bearing on anything that happens in other books. I’m not sure if I’m glad I read it or not, but I know for sure that I’ll not be doing so again.

A Traitor to Memory by Elizabeth George

Book description:
When Eugenie Davies is killed by a driver on a quiet London street, her death is clearly no accident. Someone struck her with a car and then deliberately ran over her body before driving off, leaving nothing behind but questions.

What brought Eugenie Davies to London on a rainy autumn night? Why was she carrying the name of the man who found her body? Who among the many acquaintances in her complicated and tragic life could have wanted her dead? And could her murder have some connection to a twenty-eight-year-old musical wunderkind, a virtuoso violinist who several months earlier suddenly and inexplicably lost the ability to play a single note?

For Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, whose own domestic life is about to change radically, these questions are only the first in an investigation that leads him to walk a fine line between personal loyalty and professional honor.

I finished A Traitor to Memory last night and have spent most of today trying to find the words to explain why I didn’t like it very much. The one thing that keeps coming back to me is that it just felt somehow empty, especially in comparison with the previous few books in the series.

It’s November now, a couple of months since Barbara got demoted and she and Lynley spent an entire book at odds with each other. While it’s certainly a relief that they are getting along well again, it is fairly strange that neither ever reflects upon their period of estrangement. In fact, there is exceedingly little from Barbara’s point of view and no appearances by her charming neighbors. Compensating slightly for this omission, however, are some segments from Winston Nkata’s perspective.

Anyway, the case in question involves a series of hit-and-run accidents that are connected to the murder of a child that Superintendent Webberly (Lynley’s boss) investigated twenty years ago. Interspersed with the feats of detection are journal entries by a violin prodigy named Gideon Davies who is in therapy to discover the reason for his abrupt inability to play his instrument. As with many books in this series, one must have patience and wait for the a-ha moment that connects seemingly disparate elements, and there are quite a few of those in this novel. “Ohhhh,” one says, “so that’s who he is!”

Unfortunately, I found the final solution… inelegant. Oh, I can devise arguments in its favor, namely that in the real world, detectives frequently do not learn why a given suspect did something, only that they did. But readers are spoiled and we are accustomed to learning such details. The evidence is sufficient, but without that extra level of confirmation it’s not quite as satisfying. Also, there’s a shock ending that inspires conflicting reactions. On one hand, it’s a neat twist, but on the other, I highly doubt that George will ever get around to revealing what actually happened, especially as the next book in the series (A Place of Hiding) is about Simon and Deborah St. James and not anyone inclined to comment on the details of this case.

Ultimately, this was a long, slightly tedious, and rather disappointing installment in the Lynley-Havers series. Not that this will in any way dissuade me from continuing on, however!

In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner by Elizabeth George

Book description:
Calder Moor is a wild and deadly place: many have been trapped in the myriad limestone caves, lost in collapsed copper mines, injured on perilous ridges. But when two bodies are discovered in the shadow of the ancient circle of stones known as Nine Sisters Henge, it is clearly not a case for Mountain Rescue.

The corpses are those of a young man and woman. Each met death in a different fashion. Each died violently. To Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, this grisly crime promises to be one of the toughest of his career. For the unfortunate Nicola Maiden was the daughter of a former officer in an elite undercover unit, a man Lynley once regarded as a mentor.

Now, as Lynley struggles to find out if Nicola’s killer was an enemy of her father’s or one she earned herself, Barbara Havers, his longtime partner, crisscrosses London seeking information on the second victim. Yet the more dark secrets Lynley and Havers uncover, the more they learn that neither the victims nor the suspects are who they appear to be… that human relationships are often murderous… and that the blood that binds can also kill.

Once again, Elizabeth George has created an intriguing mystery—perhaps her most complicated yet easy-to-follow case to date—while ensuring that the interactions between the lead detectives remain the most compelling part of the story.

The two victims in this case—Nicola Maiden and Terry Cole—are found on a moor in Derbyshire, and Lynley is specifically requested to work the case by the Nicola’s father, a former special operations officer for whom he worked briefly earlier in his career. Heading up the local investigation is DI Peter Hanken, a chain-smoking family man whose manner of speech frequently put me in mind of Gene Hunt. Hanken’s convinced that Nicola’s father is responsible, and while Lynley can’t buy that, he is still convinced that Nicola was the target, especially as more details of her not-so-wholesome lifestyle emerge.

Enter Havers. After the events of Deception on His Mind, in which she not only disobeyed a director order but fired a gun at a superior officer, Barbara has spent the last three months on suspension pending the results of an inquiry. She is ultimately demoted to Detective Constable and at first attributes the fact that she still remains with CID at all to Lynley’s advocacy, but it turns out that he is quite critical of her actions. He assigns her various menial tasks connected to the Derbyshire case but, headstrong as ever, Havers follows her hunch that the key to the murders lies with Terry Cole, not Nicola Maiden.

She works that end of things in London, enlisting the more-charming-the-more-we-see-of-him DC Winston Nkata to help her. (Seriously, Nkata is fun. When are we going to get something from his perpsective?) Lynley gets increasingly fed up with her defiance and I swear… the tension between them kept me on the edge of my seat much more than the murder investigation itself. It was like watching two friends keep doing things to irritate and alienate the other while being completely unable to help. How could I not sympathize with Barbara as she doggedly works to get at the truth? But at the same time, how could I not cringe when her actions drive her further and further out of Lynley’s good graces? The resolution to all this comes about a little too conveniently, but I’m too relieved to be too critical.

The case itself is particularly multi-layered, and I marvel that George is able to keep all of these balls in the air while never losing the reader. There’s not too much with Lynley’s personal life in this volume—aside from Lady Helen’s involvement in patching things up with Barbara—but Barbara’s makes some progress. Her neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, has been trying to get the details of what happened in Essex and ultimately learns that Barbara wound up demoted because she wouldn’t let his daughter, Hadiyyah, be left to drown. So now he feels tremendous gratitude to her and it almost looks at one point like he’s confessing more romantic feelings but now I am unsure again. The thought of awkward, sloppy Barbara trying to navigate a romantic relationship fills me with utter squee, though, so I will continue to hope that matters develop in that direction.

If you’re looking for a well-written mystery series with a serious claim to the label “literature,” then the Inspector Lynley series might be for you. I’ll be diving into the next book as soon as I post this review!

Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George

From the front flap:
Balford-le-Nez is a dying seatown on the coast of Essex. But when a member of the town’s small but growing Asian* community is found dead on its beach, his neck broken, sleepy Balford-le-Nez ignites. Working solo, without her long-time partner Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, Sergeant Barbara Havers must probe not only the mind of a murderer and a case very close to her own heart, but the terrible price people pay for deceiving others… and themselves.

* Evidently, Brits use the term “Asian” to apply to people whom Americans would call “Middle Eastern.”

As a fan of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, I was chuffed to discover that Deception on His Mind features Barbara in the role of main protagonist, as her superior officer, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, is away on his honeymoon. While I like Barbara even more after this outing, especially after she gives voice to one long-overdue “sod you” in the book’s final pages, I unexpectedly found myself missing Lynley.

This isn’t Barbara’s fault at all, however. Instead, I lay the blame at Detective Inspector Emily Barlow, an acquaintance of Barbara’s who is the lead investigator of the murder of Haytham Querashi, a Pakistani immigrant who has come to England to marry Sahlah Malik, daughter of a local businessman, and work in her father’s factory. Barbara gets involved in the case when her neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, is summoned by his cousin (Sahlah’s brother Mohannad) to help advise the family. She wants to help him out and when she discovers that Barlow is heading up the case, she offers to assist. It soon becomes apparent that Barlow harbors racist attitudes, as she spends the entire book focused on pinning the crime on Mohannad and balking any time Barbara finds evidence that suggests a white person might have been involved.

This, as you might imagine, gets incredibly frustrating. In fact, I think the whole theme of the book must be “people seeing only what they want to see,” because there are several characters who exhibit this quality. Sahlah’s friend, Rachel, is deluded that pregnant Sahlah will be able to have a happy-ever-after romance with rich and white Theo Shaw. And, failing that, that Sahlah would be content to spend her days living with her in a cozy flat by the sea. She and Sahlah have several tedious conversations about the unlikelihood of these events occurring, but Rachel never seems to get it. Meanwhile, Rachel’s mum, fit and attractive Connie, refuses to see facially deformed Rachel as anything but lovely and Yumn, Mohannad’s odious wife, sees herself as Allah’s gift to humanity for her ability to bear sons for her husband and abuses her position to order Sahlah about imperiously. (She also seems to have an unhealthy fixation with her children’s nether regions.)

Icky and irritating characters aside, the investigation into Querashi’s death is fairly interesting. I learned a new bit of British slang—cottaging—and really enjoyed the trust that develops between Barbara and Azhar. They’re an unlikely match, but now I totally want them to get together, especially since Azhar’s ray-of-sunshine daughter, Hadiyyah, loves Barbara so much and is loved in return. Events culminate in a rather exciting boat chase, and I liked that Barlow’s instinctive suspicions aren’t entirely wrong, after all. I was confused by a couple of things, however, and especially disappointed when Barbara failed to mention a bit of evidence that would prove Querashi’s good intentions when Barlow got it into her head that he’d been blackmailing Mohannad. I think George dropped the ball there.

Overall, this is not my favorite Lynley mystery, but it shows Barbara in a good light and offers interesting ramifications for her in the future. I’ve just discovered there’s a new Lynley mystery due in January, and my goal is to get caught up by then, so expect more reviews of this series in the months to come.

In the Presence of the Enemy by Elizabeth George

Book description:
When a young girl disappears from the streets of London without a trace, her mother, a well-respected MP, is convinced she knows the identity of the kidnapper—the child’s father. But Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers soon learn that nothing in this investigation is what it appears to be, and that in betrayal and deception, lies death.

Eleven years ago, at a Tory conference, a young political hopeful named Eve Bowen enjoyed a week-long fling with Dennis Luxford, a tabloid journalist with Labour Party views. There was no love between them, and when Eve found out she was pregnant, she informed Luxford that she didn’t want him to have anything to do with the child. Luxford respected her wishes, but when he receives an anonymous letter instructing him to acknowledge his firstborn on the front page of his newspaper or she’ll be killed, his first instinct is to comply.

Eve, now a Member of Parliament and an Undersecretary of the Home Office, won’t have it, however. Her suspicion of Luxford—he’s the only other person who knows the truth about the child’s parentage, after all—and obstinate refusal to even consider that he might be innocent blind her to the real peril her daughter, Charlotte, is in, and the delay ultimately costs Charlotte her life. Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers are called in to investigate, and then Luxford’s son, Leo, is taken.

It’s an intricate plot, with many enjoyable twists and turns, memorable characters, and a satisfying conclusion. Among the cast are two particularly infuriating women, though, whom I wanted to take a moment to describe. The first, Eve Bowen, views all events through the veil of what they might mean to her political career. She’s convinced that Luxford is out to ruin her, experiences essentially no grief when Charlotte dies, and is just thoroughly unpleasant throughout. The other, Corrine Payne, is the mother of the local constable with whom Havers works in Wiltshire. She’s convinced that Havers and her son are having an affair, and refuses to listen to any of Barbara’s denials. Plus, she’s manipulative in a feeble, whiny sort of way. I think what gets under my skin the most about both of them is the way they absolutely refuse to listen to reason. Irksome qualities aside, they’re both well-written characters, so this does not actually constitute a complaint of any kind.

Moving on to everything I liked! Because Eve refuses to go to the police, Luxford hires Simon St. James to do some investigating on his behalf, so a substantial portion of the beginning of the novel is Simon, Helen, and Deborah looking for clues. When Lynley finds out they were involved and could have gone to the police and possibly prevented Charlotte’s death, he is livid. And then Helen tells him off for being self-righteous. Everyone’s so likeable and flawed simultaneously; it’s great.

Also great is that Havers gets a chance to shine. Although Charlotte was kidnapped in London, her body is found in a canal in Wiltshire, so while Lynley—assisted by the increasingly charismatic DC Nkata—heads up the London end, Havers is given charge of the Wiltshire investigation, and performs admirably. George does employ the tried-and-true “female detective finds herself alone in the murderer’s clutches” plot development near the end, but Havers proves far from helpless, as does Leo Luxford.

The depiction of the Luxford family is also one of my favorite things about the book. Here’s a man, the editor of a sleazy tabloid newspaper, whom one would expect to care less about the life of a daughter he never met than her actual mother, but that turns out not to be the case at all. He also faces some unpleasant truths about his motives for attempting to toughen up his son, and realizes near the end of the book the tyrannical figure he’s become in that regard. The final scene concerns this family and it seriously made me cry.

I think this may actually be my favorite Lynley mystery yet!

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!

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!