Two of my favorite crime writers across the spectrum of time are Agatha Christie (we even named our store after her) and Elizabeth George. I feel my juvenile reading tastes were formed by Agatha – I had finished all of her available books half way through high school, and my adult tastes have been formed by George, an author I discovered after I opened the store. Business our first winter wasn’t so brisk and so many customers had told me how great George was that I began to read one after the other. I think like many readers of contemporary crime fiction, reading A Great Deliverance, George’s first novel, remains a signature experience. Now I await the publication of a new Lynley novel with great anticipation. It’s no secret that many of her fans found her last book (which I thought was spectacular) heavy going. Titled What Came Before He Shot Her, it’s the explication of the life of the boy that shot and killed Lynley’s beloved wife, Lady Helen Clyde. Many more readers have been eagerly awaiting Lynley’s return, an appearance he finally makes in Careless in Red. This is a late in the series book – a series George has kept fresh by various methods, one of them being her last daring novel. This one is more a return to form.
I am reviewing it concurrently with Christie’s Hallowe’en Party because this was also a late in the series book for Christie – in 1969, Poirot seems very much an antique, but there’s still something almost magical about him. The way his brain works – much like Nero Wolfe’s – is not always apparent to the reader though this far along we as readers know he’s a genius and trust him when he’s making deductive leaps. A concise writer, Christie keeps the workings of the plot under wraps – it simply unfolds, seemingly effortlessly, as you read it. Barbara D’Amato once told me she herself loved Agatha because her plots were so “organic” and I think I finally get what she meant. George is not a concise writer, something I have always actually enjoyed, but in this book there’s some magic missing that old Agatha still possessed so late in the game. If George was a watchmaker, the inner workings of this novel would be laid bare for all to see and to admire, and I think therein lies the difficulty. She’s a gifted watchmaker, no doubt about it, but in this case I think she’s too pleased with the gears. The way the characters interact with each other are brilliant – I can’t help but admire her skill – but at the same time she’s left off what made many, many of her books truly memorable, and that’s a compelling portrait of the victim. In this story, the victim is overshadowed by the rest of the cast, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure I knew him as well as I should. It made me less invested, emotionally, in the outcome of the story.
What did capture me was the return to the canvas of Thomas Lynley, a character I think I can safely assume is as beloved by readers as the dapper Poirot himself. But it was the appearance of Barbara Havers about half way through the story that really made my heart sing – high top sneakers, stained, ugly jacket, awful haircut and all. Barbara brings a welcome breath of vitality to the affair, and when she arrives in her horrible car, things really began to pick up. The set up is a fairly simple one, from a situational point of view – Lynley, working through his grief by walking alone along the coast of Cornwall, stumbles across a body. When the locals find out who he is they find a reason to make him stick around and help; and as it turns out, he’s not officially off the force. His cop instincts in fact snap into place (huge sigh of relief, everyone?) as he begins to piece together the death of the teenaged Santo Kerne in a climbing accident. Because Lynley investigates Santo’s death on his terms, not on the terms of the detective in charge, Bea Hannaford, he drives her crazy but as readers we know he’s crazy like a fox and surely following the right lead.
In Hallowe’en Party Poirot is asked to look into the death of a 13 year old girl at a party – she’s been held underwater in the apple bobbing bucket and drowned. He’s called in by Christie’s stand in, Ariadne Oliver, the famous crime novelist. As he begins to assemble the various threads of the story – he works in his own way, just like Lynley – they begin (organically) to pull together and make sense. In Careless in Red George assembles her usual huge cast of characters, mostly the residents of the tiny Cornwall town where Santo was killed, a community known for its surfing, oddly enough. The surfing is a sub theme but mostly this is a book about both sex and about the relationships between parents and children. And I will say George appears to be mellowing a bit – not every relationship is trashed at the end of the book, including the one between Havers and Lynley (another huge sigh of relief, everyone?). George’s brilliance surfaces as she’s able to paint a full picture of the characters in the story and show how they have changed as they have matured and aged, though obviously not always in a good way. That’s the work of a master.
Of course reading a book published in 1969 is a different and less visceral experience than reading one published in the year it was written. Christie long ago claimed her place in the crime pantheon; but reading a brisk novel like Hallowe’en Party, written so late in her career, is a reminder of why that place is so secure. This is the work of a master as well. It remains to be seen what Elizabeth George will do with the rest of her career – one way or another I am invested enough in her classic characters to keep reading. Happily, this is a journey that is hopefully very far from over.