>> Wednesday, April 19, 2017
To this day, the low, thin wail of an infant can be heard in Keldale's lush green valleys. Three hundred years ago, as legend goes, the frightened Yorkshire villagers smothered a crying babe in Keldale Abbey, where they'd hidden to escape the ravages of Cromwell's raiders.This was a bit of a trip down memory lane. Elizabeth George was one of the authors I used to read as a teenager in Uruguay. This was some 20 years ago, before I discovered how to buy books online, when I'd constantly haunt the 2 bookstores in Montevideo which carried English-language books (it got to the point where the managers would let me know when a new box of books arrived, and just let me into the back of the shop to open the boxes myself). I would discover an author I liked, more often than not reading a book that was halfway through a series (in the case of Elizabeth George, I'm pretty sure it was For the Sake of Elena), and then just pick up any other book I came across. Probably why I'm a bit obsessive about reading things in order now!
Now into Keldale's pastoral web of old houses and older secrets comes Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth earl of Asherton. Along with the redoubtable Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, Lynley has been sent to solve a savage murder that has stunned the peaceful countryside. For fat, unlovely Roberta Teys has been found in her best dress, an axe in her lap, seated in the old stone barn beside her father's headless corpse. Her first and last words were "I did it. And I'm not sorry."
Yet as Lynley and Havers wind their way through Keldale's dark labyrinth of secret scandals and appalling crimes, they uncover a shattering series of revelations that will reverberate through this tranquil English valley—and in their own lives as well.
Anyway, I remember really liking George's books, even though I was getting the developments in the personal lives of the detectives (particularly the soap opera that is Inspector Thomas Lynley's love life) in random bits and pieces. I know there are developments in the later books that many readers have not liked (I know several people in the romance blogosphere have even stopped reading the series because of those developments), but I really fancied going back to the early ones, at least, to see whether they still appealed to me.
Backtracking a bit: it's the mid- to late-1980s, and in a small Yorkshire village, pillar of the community William Teys has been found dead in his barn. It's a gruesome sight: his head has been chopped clean off, and he's lying on top of the family dog, whose throat has been slit. His daughter, 19-year-old Roberta, is sitting right next to the headless body, cradling the axe and wearing her Sunday best. All she will say is "I did it. And I'm not sorry."
The whodunnit doesn't seem like much of a mystery, and the regional police don't seem inclined to look any further than Roberta, whom they cart off to a mental hospital to await trial. But two of the senior police officers in the area have quite the history of disagreement, and yet another clash over this case leads to the decision to send someone from Scotland Yard to have another look.
The person chosen is Inspector Thomas Lynley. Lynley is a bit of a golden boy in the Yard, and he also happens to be one of those aristocratic detectives no British author would dare write in a contemporary setting. He's properly aristocratic, being the eighth Earl of Asherton, with such grand trappings as a massive estate in Cornwall and a full-time valet.
For this case, Lynley is paired with DS Barbara Havers. Havers is an officer who has been demoted back to being a beat cop after not being able to get along with (male) partner after (male) partner. The superintendent is still convinced there is something in her, though, so he takes the chance to see if she can work with the man who's her polar oppposite in background (she's proudly working class), personality (she's bitter and truculent; he's got effortless charm) and looks (she's plain and dumpy; he's gorgeous and stylish).
So the book is just as much a mystery as it is about Lynley and Havers slowly starting to get along and becoming real partners. They're far from there by the end of the book, and there are times when they seem like the worst of enemies, but it's clear that there is a germ of real compatibility there and that once they've ironed out the misconceptions, they'll work well together. I really liked this element, particularly because Havers is far from the dutiful working class assistant to the masterful aristocratic sleuth.
The book is also about Lynley and Havers as individuals, and I liked this just as much. We don't get a lot about Havers in this book, beyond her complicated relationship with her parents, which is very different from what it seems at first glance. However, I do remember there's quite a bit more coming. With Lynley, I've mentioned the soap opera love life, and that's definitely there. We first meet him when Havers has to go find him at the wedding of his (former?) best friend, Simon Allcourt-St James, one of the best forensics scientists in the country. So, the drama: Simon was badly injured some years earlier in a car accident where Lynley was driving (drunk, apparently, although I'm not 100% sure if that's true, or just the rumour Havers picked up). His bride? Lynley's former fiancée, Deborah, whom Lynley's still madly in love with. The other character in this quartet, which we will return to in further books, is Lady Helen. She and Lynley are very close friends, and she seems to be in love with him. So yeah, Havers may assume Lynley leads a charmed life, but he's not a happy man. I seem to remember feeling a bit frustrated with this element, after reading several of the books, so it will be interesting to see if reading them in order makes a difference. For now, I'm really intrigued.
I meant to write a short, snappy review, but I'm going on and on and I haven't even got to the mystery yet! Possibly because I'm slightly conflicted about it. On one hand, the investigation is very well done, and I loved getting to know the villagers and finding out their myriad secrets. George excels at creating some quite vivid characters, and I found them all very believable.
On the other hand, if a mystery has to be mysterious, this doesn't quite work. When they came, the revelations about what had happened were not surprising in the least. In fact, I knew exactly what had happened from the start. Every single little clue and puzzle piece, I zeroed in and put it in exactly the right place. Now, it might be that I remembered the plot from when I first read the book, 20 years ago, but I don't think so. I think what's happened is that what would have been unthinkable and shocking back then is sadly all too obvious in these less innocent times (trying not to include spoilers, but seriously, if you have a case where a pillar of the community type seems to have been clearly murdered by his daughter, what possible explanation does your 2017 mind immediately go to?).
That, however, is not necessarily a problem. I felt the characters, setting, and procedural elements were strong enough to support a non-mystery. And as long as you read the book as a historical mystery (yes, I feel old as well thinking of the 80s as 'historical'), and don't expect the detectives to have the same knowledge (particularly about the psychological aspects of a certain issue) as modern-day detectives would have, then the investigation is perfectly satisfying to read.
And if you need some convincing that the 80s were another time, I leave you with this little snippet, which made me smile. This is Havers imagining a typical posh neighbour of Lynley's in Belgravia:
"We're in Belgravia now. Did we mention it? Oh, do stop by for tea! It's nothing much. Just £300,000, but we like to think of it as such an investment. Five rooms. With the sweetest little cobblestone street that you've ever seen."
I wish I could find such investment!
MY GRADE: A B+.