While I have been a huge fan of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley novels, I confess the last couple haven’t quite captured me in the manner of earlier ones. The reason for this, I believe, has nothing to do with the superb writing or plot which is always of such a high standard. Rather, it was the sense of absence around the primary character and the man we’ve all grown to know and love, Inspector Thomas Lynley, the intrepid Earl himself. I recall writing one review which was akin to Missing Person’s Report, so strongly did I feel he wasn’t present – bodily, yes, but it was as if he’d lost his mojo (understandable to a degree in light of his wife’s tragic death, but it was beyond that) and common sense. Fortunately, Havers was there to compensate and that she did – pop tarts and all.
With this novel The Punishment She Deserves, I was at first worried this was going to be yet another book where the reader was deprived of Lynley. While he hovers in the background for the first third, there is a good reason for that. Havers (who is on her last legs in terms of remaining with New Scotland Yard) and Detective Chief Superintendent Ardery – Lynely’s erstwhile lover and boss as well as an alcoholic – are sent to the small, ancient town of Ludlow to investigate the apparent suicide of an MP’s son – Ian Druitt, the local Deacon – who killed himself in a police cell after his arrest on a charge of paedophilia. Regarding this as a perfect opportunity to wipe his hands of Havers once and for all, the Assistant Commissioner sends Ardery and Havers to Ludlow to insure the investigation into the death of Druitt ticked all boxes, as the MP is grumbling from on high and threatening to bring down all sorts of trouble on the force. Ardery is not only tasked with running the investigation, but seeing to it that Havers fails. Warned by Lynley what’s in store, Havers is careful to toe the line… only, it’s not exactly a line she finds, but a series of curves and ellipses which prick her instincts and tell her all is not as it seems.
When Ardery refuses to listen to Havers’ concerns, going so far as to order her to falsify information, Havers is in a bind. Turning to her boss and partner, what she doesn’t expect is for him to risk his reputation and career on her behalf. Lynley’s actions see him taking over the reins of the investigation and, as a reader, it was lovely to find him – from that moment on – both very much present and accounted for.
Sent back to Ludlow to properly investigate not only that the police involved behaved appropriately, but that the entire inquiry into the death was carried out as it should have been. Moving slowly, Lynley and Havers’ investigation centres on the close-knit town folk, the families associated with the almost saintly Ian Druitt and the tightly held secrets they all guard. Trying to discover what led Ian Druitt, a man recently awarded by the town, to commit suicide proves more difficult than either Lynley or Havers counted on – that is, until they understand the man didn’t kill himself and it appears his murder covered up more than one terrible crime…
Beautifully written, this story unfurls in a steady, nail-biting way. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoiling what is an incredible novel about a crime, but also about family and how it can function (or not) in the best and worst of ways, demand of us obligations and sacrifices with so few rewards. How, despite this, we fight for our loved ones, those who share our blood, for perhaps what this promises rather than the reality. All the characters are so richly drawn that while some of their actions and reasons for them are perplexing and frustrating, you champion and/or see the root of their decisions, even if they inevitably lead to disaster. You also learn the motivation behind the lies, deceptions and oft-misplaced loyalties of family, colleagues, friends, neighbours. There were times I wondered why George spent so much time unravelling a particular family dynamic or a friendship until, as the book progressed and the plot thickened and twisted and turned inside out, I began to not only understand, but become engrossed/horrified/gratified in the ties that bind, blind and seek us to make good or poor decisions as well as deadly ones.
What I really enjoyed about this novel as well (apart from seeing Lynley and Havers together and in such fine form again), was exploring what makes Isabelle Ardery tick. I have found her character such a struggle in the past. I never understood Lynley’s attraction to her and what ultimately drew him to sleep with her, nor the respect and position of authority she was given – her rank didn’t fit the persona we were presented with. I thought after the last book we were well rid of her and was grateful. This isn’t the case. Yet, Ardery’s incentives, her demons, her personal life are all explored and given depth and insights that make you not necessarily like the woman (she is her own worst enemy in that regard and hey, she has it in for Havers and no-one but no-one is allowed to give Barbara an undeserved hard time), but come to understand and even, dare I say, empathise with her and the stupid, reckless decisions she’s made and continues to make as well. George is a master when it comes to untangling the seamier side of human nature, exploring the darkness within and how we’re slaves to this even while we try to resist. She’s proven this over and over in her books and this one is no exception.
A rather long book, I nevertheless didn’t want it to end. Masterful, compelling, tightly and expertly plotted with bursts of humour, all expressed with exquisite prose, this is George at her best – Lynley and Havers too. My only disappointment is that I know I will have a long wait until the next one!