With No One As Witness, Elizabeth George, Harper Collins, $26.95.
With any other author, opening a book as long as this one (627 pages) would elicit not only a groan, but even complete avoidance of the book. With Elizabeth George, though, I am so happy to settle in and be completely absorbed that I actually wish the books were longer. The last book, A Place of Hiding, actually was too long, and not only that, didn't even feature Lynley and Havers. I don't know if Ms. George got some mail on that topic, but Lynley and Havers couldn't be more front and center in this novel, and even better, they're properly in London. The London George describes here is a close, suffocating one, clogged with cars, people and endless traffic. I've talked to two readers who found George's descriptions somewhat discursive, but I almost enter a trance mode when I read one of her books - the world she creates is so absolutely complete that the real world is sometimes an intrusion. I know of another reader who won't read her any more because she didn't get off her sofa for 8 hours while she read A Great Deliverance.
The story in this particular novel is of the fairly classic (modern) variety - a killer is targeting young boys; only when the fourth victim, a white boy, is killed, do the police connect a string of murders of black and mixed race boys. All the bodies are so similar that it's obvious they are the work of one killer - the palms of all their hands are burned, and there's a few other gruesome details that you can discover for yourself when reading the book. The fallout from this kind of oversight on the part of the police - overlooking the deaths of so many mixed race boys - is so massive that a publicity machine snaps into place which shapes not only the investigation to come, but the things that happen to the characters.
Lynley, the acting chief inspector (thanks to the shooting of his previous boss, who is still in the hospital, recovering), must now work with his nemesis, the assistant commissioner, Hillier. Hillier sees this case almost in purely political terms; the more angst filled Lynley sees it as a human tragedy. One of Hillier's responses is to require the newly promoted Detective Sergeant Winton Nkata to attend all news conferences with him; Nkata is the only black detective on his staff. Nkata seethes about this requirement, but it must be met. Havers, still in something of a disgrace, is still merely a Detective Constable, the lowest grade. Lynley, among other complications in his life, continues to defend the difficult, ramshackle, unkempt but hyper intelligent Havers, who seems to grate on everyone's nerves but his. He's also dealing with a "profiler" imposed on him by Hillier; this rankles, especially when the profiler demands access to the crime scenes. Lynley and Hillier's true inability to work together creates lots of tension, and only when Hillier demands that a reporter be "embedded" with the officers - much as reporters are embedded with troops in Iraq - does Lynley blow his stack, to absolutely no avail.
The details of the investigation are, of course, meticulous, as are the people that fill this novel. The families of the boys are heartbreaking; and each character and suspect is so perfectly described that the picture you have of them in your mind is completely visual. The core characters in every book have also, in the course of now thirteen novels, come to seem real as well, and their problems, to any regular George reader, familiar. As most readers will remember, Lynley and Lady Helen were finally married two books ago; in this installment, she's awaiting the birth of their first child, jokingly called by the two of them "Jasper Felix" in private. Helen is able to bring Lynley a center of calm in his life, all the more necessary as the investigation becomes both more difficult and more heartbreaking.
This novel may indeed be "discursive" but it's also riveting - it barely left my hands for the two measly days it took me to devour it, and that's because, not only is George a master of character and setting, she's also a master of the suspenseful plot. I hadn't figured out who the killer was by the end, and the book is laced with red herrings and dead ends, all lovingly described by George as Havers and Nkata labor through their investigation. This is a real look not only at the devestating aftermath of crime and the results of poverty, but at the workplace - the importance of being able to work together and to communicate is stressed again and again; and in many ways, it's miscommunication that sparks the ultimate tragedies at the end of the book. I can't give much more than that away; but if you're a true George fan, you'll want to get to reading it yourself in short order anyway. She's left the reader with a real conundrum as well as a heartbreak at the end of the novel, and it seems almost cruel to have to wait another year or so to find out what happens next. (Robin)
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