A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

Having adored the Inspector Lynley series since I first stumbled upon it years ago, and always enjoying the beauty and detail of George’s sublime writing, I’d found a few of the more recent Lynley books a little disappointing in terms of the main character, so much so, in one of my reviews I actually filed a Missing Persons Report on the Eighth Earl of Asherton, one Inspector Thomas Lynley.

22571556When I picked up this nineteenth instalment in the series, A Banquet of Consequences, I first though, oh no! Tommy and Barbara Havers, his prickly side-kick with a propensity for pop tarts and trakky daks, have gone AWOL. So much so, they don’t really appear, except in some readily forgettable scenes till almost a third of the way through the book. Having said that, the narrative that commences the book, a tale of many threads that take a while to join and then unravel, is engrossing. It’s so good, in fact, that Havers and Lynely feel like intrusions or even unnecessary – goodness! Did I write that? Yet, before long, Lynley and Havers step up and become an intrinsic part of this fascinating tale of families, love, loss, huge dysfunction and a betrayal of trust like no other.

So, while I almost gave up on the book early, believing that George had abandoned her dynamic duo in favour of another story, relegating them to almost laughable secondary roles as Havers undergoes an attempted make-over to please her irrational and demanding boss and presage a return to form, and Lynley languishes in love, I am so glad I didn’t. George doesn’t let the reader or fans of Thomas Lynely and Barbara Havers down. Though they don’t burst onto the scene until well into the book, with her accustomed mastery, George allows us peeps of them while introducing the reader to a multitude of complex, rich and deep characters, from a feminist scholar and author, Clare Abbott, to her anxiety-ridden publisher, a young man, Will, suffering from Tourettes Syndrome and crippling doubts, and his heavily tattooed and pierced girlfriend, Lily. There’s Will’s psychologist brother, Charlie, and his unhappy wife, India, and the pushy, narcissistic mother of the two men, Caroline, who is married to the down to earth baker, Alistair – just to name a few.

At first, you think, what have these people to do with anything? Then, a tragedy occurs and you find yourself thinking, that’s simply awful but what role does it play in this mystery, especially when there seems to be no mystery and no relationship between all these characters in the unfolding tale? Please explain!

Well, explain George does… and how.

It turns out the least likeable and most magnificently drawn of these characters, the hugely disordered Caroline, is the bridge uniting what at first appears to be two disparate groups of people as Caroline works for Clare Abbott. Authoritarian and prone to organising those who don’t wish to be, Caroline is an unpleasant and entirely selfish force to be reckoned with, something Barbara Havers experiences first hand.

When a death occurs that on the surface appears like suicide but upon further investigation turns out to be murder, Havers is contacted by one fot he characters for her help. Begging Lynley to intervene with Superintendent Isabelle Ardery (who, unfortunately, is still at the helm of the Met) and grant her the case, Havers has her wishes (against great odds) fuflilled. Sent to a small town, Havers, along with Winston Nkata, begins to examine the lives of all these people to whom the reader has already been introduced, uncovering a hotbed of secrets, lies, deceptions and betrayals. Relying on her boss, Lynley, in London to pursue other leads, when another person involved with the case is almost killed, both Havers and Lynley uncover more than they ever bargained for…

I don’t want to give away any of this plot as it is a cracker. The characters are amazingly well drawn, so much so, I can forgive George the faffing around at the beginning with Havers and Dorothea (which almost had me putting down the book) and the fact the lead roles, Tommy and Barb don’t really take centre stage for pages and pages.

This is a terrific crime novel and a great story, full of twists, turns, excellent writing, forensic but fascinating (in the real sense of the word – unable to turn away from because it is both awful and thrilling) exploration of families – the roles each member plays, the masks they wear, how behaviours impact upon others, how we bury truths and live lies.

The conclusion is so horrendous and though you see it coming in some senses, you do not want it to arrive. It’s like watching a crash you cannot stop or change, you just have to witness the impact, but already know the damage that’s been done.

It’s not only the characters about whom the crime revolves who are wonderfully crafted, Tommy and Barb as well as Winston are also fully rounded and eminently satisfying to read and champion. Though Tommy still grieves and is forever changed by the terrible loss he’s suffered, he is sharp, kind and loyal – the old Inspector hewn afresh; a little careworn and vulnerable, but no less noble in every sense of the word. And Barb, well she too has been hurt and yet gained from the experiences she endured in the last novel (which was wonderful). Ardery, however, is an unreasonable and quite vindictive woman whom I hope George transfers soon. She is predictable as well – which makes her boring. Just like Haver’s career, this series does not need her.

Overall, a fabulous and gripping read I found hard to put down.

 

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Book Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

I was so excited when this book came out, I dropped all others I was either reading or about to in order to lose myself in the world of Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner in crime, Sergeant Barbara Havers. And what a wonderful world it is – fraught with danger, beauty, secrets, betrayals, threats and promises – and this time against a magnificent and frustrating ItaliaJust One Evil Act (Inspector Lynley, #18)n backdrop.

After being ever so slightly disappointed in the portrayal of the grieving Inspector Lynley in the last couple of books, it was nice to have the sleuthing Earl return to form… but, just when George brings Tommy back, Havers goes off the rails and behaves in a manner that seems out of character to the fiercely loyal, street-wise and committed detective we’ve grown to know and love.

The explanation for Haver’s erratic behaviour is quickly established. It’s due to the disappearance of her neighbour’s daughter, Hadiyyah, a child Barbara adores (and whose father she clearly harbours deep feelings for). Watching Hadiyyah’s father, Taymullah, grieve for the loss of his child breaks Haver’s heart and she does all in her power (and beyond) to help him track her whereabouts, including hiring a private detective and putting her own job under threat (nothing new there).

Never one to worry about compromising her work or other’s opinions of her in a professional sense, when Hadiyyah is eventually located with her mother, Angelina, in Lucca, Italy, but is then kidnapped from the mercato, Haver’s common sense and uncanny ability to sum up a situation and work within it, vanishes. It’s not her desperation to help Taymullah at all costs, or that she makes some silly decisions that irks, it’s the fact that she not only puts her trust in someone who clearly demonstrates they are less than worthy, but that she also fails to share important information and confidences with her partner Lynley that somehow doesn’t ring true…not after all they’ve been through together.

But I am being pernickety.

For it’s due to Havers impulsive behaviour that New Scotland Yard is put on the case of the English child missing in Italy. Instead of being the one chosen to go to Italy and thus to Taymullah Azhar’s aid to help find his daughter and deal with the Italian authorities, much to Haver’s chagrin, Inspector Lynely is sent in her stead.

Once in Lucca, Lynley deals with the Italian law with aplomb. Not only is he fluent in the language, he is masterful at putting people at ease and being able to ferret out the facts. While on the surface, it appears as if Hadiyyah’s kidnapping is the result of a shady deal gone wrong, Lynley, and his wonderful Italian counterpart, the beautifully drawn Inspector Savatore lo Bianco, soon discover that the culprit is much closer than they think.

Like the twisting, narrow roads that bisect and wind around Lucca, so too, the plot turns and angles, and more and more people are drawn into the web being woven around the missing child. Secondary characters enter and exit, their personalities rich, seedy, daring and passionate – like the place in which they live. But nothing is simply black and white. In fact, most often even seemingly honest and respectable characters are cast in unfavourable lights, shadows, showing the depths to which even decent folk will stoop in the name of love, family and honour.

Distraught and angry at being left in London, Haver’s soon turns her fury into purpose but, as she closes in on the truth, her job and reputation don’t only go on the line, but look set to be destroyed once and for all.

I really enjoyed this book and found it very hard to put down. Even the out of character behaviour of Havers, as far-fetched as it sometimes seems (and you have to read the book to understand) made sense within the narrative, albeit with a big suspension of disbelief.

And, while I revelled in the evocation of Italy and Italians, I wondered how non-native speakers or anyone with no Italian language would find reading the book as it is liberally peppered with Italian words, phrases and even conversation. I can speak it quite well and found it distracting and, at times, the amount of it unnecessary. There isn’t always a translation offered either and I imagine that would be very frustrating if not off-putting as sometimes a key description is hinted at and various character traits are revealed with just a word or two of Italian. Without an English equivalent, some readers would lose the benefit of that additional piece of prose or subtle clue and fleshing out of individuals. Nonetheless, like all George’s books, the prose is beautiful, the dialogue crisp when it needs to be, languorous as well – just a wonderful read.

This is definitely a return to form for Lynley. Though, I did wonder at the end how the mess Havers created would be resolved. The denouement is surprising, even if it does have someone else acting in a way that a reader would not have anticipated – but in this instance, it’s a very pleasant surprise.

Bring on the next Lynley – please!

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

Why is it that when a songwriter or singer changes genres we applaud their daring, write, and speak about how multi-talented they are; how fortunate we are to gain so much pleasure from their creativity? But, when a famous author dares to switch genres, there are rumblings and grumblings and unfair expectations placed upon them – before the work is even published? Warning the marketplace that The Casual Vacancy would be nothing like the Harry Potter books, that it was for adults and quite depressing, Rowling was nonetheless encumbered with criticisms and snubs for having the literary presumption to leave Potterworld. Yet, she was blunt: if you were looking for Hogwarts and wizards, she warned, they would not be found in the pages of her new book. Yet, so many reviewers have come to the novel with the expectation that, for some reason, they should be there, even if just a glimmer, whisper or peek. They practically accuse her of letting readers down, of abusing her position as a world-famous writer instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt and congratulating her for demonstrating such imagination and lexical dexterity.

Frustrated by attitudes, stories and some reviews (which were not reviews because it was clear the book hadn’t been read, rather they were more rebukes) the publication of this book produced, it was hard not to let them tarnish the reading experience. I tried to approach this book as I would any other by a beloved author who decided to try their hand at something different and read and rate it on its own merits – and I was not disappointed. But, as Rowling warned, it’s no Harry Potter: the only magical thing is the writing, which is superb.

The Casual Vacancy is, frankly, brilliantly awful. Set across two English towns, Pagford and The Fields, one with a very acute awareness of its history, the other a by-product of late modernity, they are inhabited by a cast of mostly toxic characters who illustrate, through their small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, the pettiness that can exist in supposed idyllic English village-like communities. As I read, I kept thinking of a quote about academia that’s been attributed to Henry Kissinger (among others), that “the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low” – I think this sums Rowling’s book up nicely.

After the death of a member of the local council, Barry Fairclough, various members of the Pagford community vie for his vacant seat. As they do, the reader is drawn into the complexity and ugliness of what should be simple lives, albeit, affected by mourning and loss. Populated by ego-centric, gossiping, classist, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, drug-taking self-interested people, Pagford and The Fields appear to be governed by folk who can barely function in their own lives, let alone make decisions that will affect others. And, as the council move towards another election, it becomes clear that one person’s loss is potentially another’s gain.

Not even the children in this miserable tale are spared the less attractive qualities the adults so readily exhibit, and is it any wonder when the grown-ups are their role-models? The kids have learned their lessons well. Dishonest, thieving, sneaky and risk-takers, they are both effect and cause of the outcomes.

As the story progresses, Rowling demonstrates her uncanny ability to mine a character’s emotions and psychology, to peel back layers to explain even the most unlikely or heinous of behaviours, to provide a context for understanding (but rarely approving). Piecing together the jigsaw of individuality, family and community, she mercilessly flays the characters, forensically dismantles their psyches and leaves them in the equivalent of a mortuary for us to gaze upon in horror.

For example, there’s Simon, violent, bad-tempered and his ineffectual wife, Ruth; their two boys, Andrew (called “pizza-face” by his aggressive, abusive father) and “Pauline”; Parminder, the local doctor, surprised by her reaction to a fellow-councilman’s death and who appears to understand the bodies and minds of all the townspeople in her care but not her own children. Her dashing heart-surgeon husband, Sukhvinder, regarded as a hero by those he loathes, especially the Mollisons – a work of gruesome art  – for whom Rowling shows very little sympathy. Empathy is reserved for some of the residents of The Fields as well as the children in the novel who can do little more than suffer their parents and their foibles, until they discover the means to revenge – not served cold, but molten hot.

The race is on to secure the vacant council seat and, as the story progresses, skeletons are exposed, secrets uncovered. Everyone in this novel is damaged – severely and, when terrible tragedy unfolds, it’s only the myopic townsfolk who didn’t see it coming.

The writing is what makes this bleak book. While Rowling does head-hop (a cardinal sin in most author’s hands), she does it with aplomb and there’s a sense in which this becomes a stylistic of the narrative. We drift from one character’s thoughts to another’s, caught in the current of activity, the plots and plans of little men and women. In terms of the tone, I was reminded of Elizabeth George’s marvellous and heart-rending What Came Before He Shot Her, only this book is firmly rooted in the middle classes (though there are those who feature who can no longer claim a place there) and the life decisions that can affect generations. Also, George’s book redeems some characters – see if you think the same happens here. I have also heard, again before publication, that the book was likened to Midsomer Murders. The Casual Vacancy make Midsomer Murders seem like Narnia – before the White Witch.

Drugs, suicide, rape, incest, adultery, criminal activity, violent abuse, shocking neglect, fear, anxiety, OCD, dark fantasies, cruelty, it’s all there – relentless, but darkly fascinating at the same time. Rowling really raised (or lowered) the writing stakes with this book.

No, this wasn’t what anyone expected… but how marvellous is that?

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Book Review: Believing the Lie, Elizabeth George

I would like to file a Missing Person’s Report. Name: Inspector Thomas Lynley, 8th Earl of  Asherton. Description: Approximately six feet tall, blond hair, dark brown eyes, oozes class, intellect and emotional intelligence and an uncanny ability to read people. Inspires loyalty, desire and trust in equal measure from friends, colleagues and strangers.

For the last three Elizabeth George novels, at least, this Inspector, whom we know and love – the dedicated friend and partner of Sargeant Barbara Havers has absented himself. No, that’s not exactly right either – he’s there, but it’s as if someone else has possessed his body and mind and I want him back! The front cover announces his return – I’m afraid the evidence that this is the case is scarce.

OK. Maybe I’m being unfair, but in the latest Lynley novel, Believing the Lie, George seems to have gone even further post-Helen’s death in re-inventing the grieving widower to a point there’s not much of the old boy left. In a sense, the fact he doesn’t appear until chapter three of this book, well after the main narrative is established (sans Tommy), functions as an analogy for the minor part he plays in this current mystery. In fact, Lynley is practically redundant.

Months have now passed since Helen died and Lynley is embroiled in a steamy affair with his alcoholic and neurotic boss, Superintendent Ardery. Quite apart from the fact that I never understood the attraction he feels for his unreasonable and demanding superior, when Lynley is sent to Cumbria by Hillier as a personal favour in order to investigate the accidental death of a friend’s nephew, he’s told to keep it secret. And he does. Not knowing why or where her lover has gone, and with him refusing to breach confidence, Ardery’s insecurities and unprofessional behaviour come to the fore making her more irritating and consequently Tommy’s attraction and efforts to placate her less plausible.

Taking his friends, Simon and Deborah St James with him, Lynley stumbles into a family full of secrets, lies and betrayals that have little to do with the reason he was brought there in the first place. But when Deborah and a reporter from the London tabloid, The Source, join forces to uncover the mystery of the Fairclough family, you know tragedy is just around the corner. Even if it takes almost six-eighths of the book to arrive.

As usual in George books, the writing is sublime. All the other characters are beautifully and, for the most part, believably drawn. Just as she did in What Came Before He Shot Her, George doesn’t steer away from the brutal reality of many young people’s lives and the choices they make and this story is no exception. Scenes are painted realistically – to the point you can smell the fresh air, hear the crunch of gravel underfoot, and smell the Pop Tart Havers is forever cramming down her throat.

For a novel that roughly sits in the crime genre, however, the main crime here, for me, is the absence of Lynley. As with the other books she’s written of late, the main character fades into the background and secondary characters dominate. Again, this might be all right for some, and the story is interesting, but this is a Lynley book and he simply doesn’t step up and wrest the tale or arrest the reader in ways that he used to. In fact, there is something listless and annoying about Lynley that there never used to be. Sure, he’s grieving for Helen, but that doesn’t mean he suddenly has to become all wishy-washy and turn into something he’s not. I can’t explain it better than that except a Lynley mystery this book wasn’t – and nor was it really a crime novel of the sort we’ve come to expect from George.

But, it was fascinating study of sexuality, familial ties and the psychology of a family unravelling. The climax was more anti than explosive as it’s not difficult to solve the puzzle George has tried to construct well before it’s revealed. That Lynley has a minor role to play in any of the action is at odds with his well-established character as well and is a bit of a let down for fans.

The book finishes with two endings (one of which will come as a relief to some) that set the scene for the next book – one that may yet relegate Lynley to the role of support character again. I sincerely hope not. I hope the Inspector is found, along with his mojo, because the series, as well-written and structured as it is, simply isn’t the same with this watery substitute.

Bring back Inspector Lynley – please!

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