This Body of Death, by Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George is back on form with This Body of Death, the sixteenth outing for Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. Thankfully back from his sojourn in Cornwall, Lynley decides to return to work for a trial period, and is plunged right into a murder enquiry when the body of a young woman is found in a north London cemetery. Lynley’s old boss has retired and has been replaced by Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, superbly neurotic, alcoholic, failed mother on the permanent verge of losing control. (Exaggerated characters are a trademark of this author, and this one is suitably Joan Crawford-like.) Isabelle is also on temporary secondment, and whether she gets the permanent role as boss of the squad depends on the odious Sir David Hillier, a smooth political type more interested in the Met’s public image than in supporting his detectives.

Interleaved with the investigation is the story of a group of people who live in the New Forest in Hampshire. One, Gordon, is a thatcher;  another, Robbie, is an agister (responsible for the welfare of the ponies that roam freely in that region); and a third, Meredith, is a single mother and aspiring fabric designer. The three are linked by Jemima Hastings, Robbie’s sister and Gordon’s girlfriend. As the book opens, Meredith regrets having fallen out with Jemima, her best friend, a year or so previously and so goes to Gordon’s common-land house to make amends. She finds Jemima has abandoned her business and has disappeared. Gordon has a new girlfriend, Gina, who seems less than truthful. Robbie and Meredith are worried about Jemima, especially when it transpires that her car is still in Gordon’s garage and her clothes boxed up in his attic.

Meanwhile, the Scotland Yard investigation continues in typical Elizabeth George style, which I happen to find rather engaging as I see London through a rather different perspective than my own – peopled by lovable cockneys, tobacconists and psychics, who spend their time doing eccentric things like teaching ice-skating but doubling up as a gigolo in an expensive hotel. There are lots of diverting “not quite right” details: people who have lived in London all their lives drive to go shopping in Oxford Street, that kind of thing. And of course, Lynley, Deborah and Simon St James are living their eighteenth-century lives with their butlers and silver salvers in the middle of it all, another source of reader amusement.

Pretty soon, the victim is identified and Isabelle uncovers a great lead – the paranoid schizophrenic brother of an internationally renowned Japanese cellist (yes, it’s that kind of book!). The reader can guess that this poor man is probably not the criminal as his role is revealed pretty early on in the book, but his presence provides an excuse for a fictionalised take on the de Menezes shooting of 2008. Similarly, at intervals during the narrative, the author provides a retrospective account of a fictionalised James Bulger-like case in the form of a psychiatric report, which we assume is going to become relevant to the main plot eventually.

Sergeants Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata, other series regulars, are investigating the Hampshire angle to the murder when the schizophrenic suspect crops up in London, so Isabelle recalls them, much to Barbara’s disgust as she is enjoying following up the leads she has unearthed.  Suspicious events continue to happen in Hampshire unmonitored, thereafter, while the police continue their investigation in London . 

This book is absolutely packed full (it is 700 pages long). The story itself is very slow to unfold, replete with many small details about characters’ reactions to each other, their assumptions and feelings. Everything is overblown, but in an engaging way – especially when the possibility of buried treasure is added to an already rich-enough mix of red herrings and abandoned directions. There are lots of holes in the plot and various gaps in the police investigation that are rather hard to ignore.  Barbara Havers in particular puts herself in a stupid position by not calling for back-up in a situation that obviously called for it for no clear reason at all, and Gina's many illogical actions left me dumbfounded. Typical of the author, there are plenty of loose ends even in a book of this great length. But, despite the flaws, the book is absorbing and carries the reader along. Thankfully, the strange, meandering directions of the previous two books in the series (Careless in Red and What Came Before he Shot Her) have been abandoned – and the author returns to her previous formula of police procedural plus a dash of romanticised English life with over-colourful characters. If you enjoyed the earlier books in the series, you’ll probably enjoy this one, in particular witnessing the next steps in the internally convoluted lives of Lynley and Havers.

Review first posted at Petrona, June 2010.

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