Friday, September 30, 2011

A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George

A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George, 1988

The house wasn't at all what he had expected. Women who desert husband and children should somehow end up in tenement buildings pungent with the odours of garlic and urine. They should daily subdue a bucking, quarrelsome conscience with liberal applications of soporific gin. They should be faded and worn, their looks quite destroyed by the ravages of shame. Whatever they should be, Lynley was sure they shouldn't be Tessa Teys Mowrey.

They'd parked in front of the house, and they stared at it silently until Havers finally spoke. "Not exactly gone downhill, has she?" she asked.

They'd found it easily, a new, middle-class neighbourhood a few miles from the city centre, the kind of place where houses have numbers as well as coy little names. The Mowreys' home was called Jorvik View. It was the concrete reality of every mediocre dream: a facade of brick covered the poured-block construction; red tiles swept up to form steep gables; white-curtained bay windows showed off sitting and dinging rooms on either side of a polished front door. A single-car, attached garage was topped by a white iron-fenced roof terrace, and a door opened onto this from the upper floor of the house. It was on this terrace that they had their first glimpse of Tessa.

She came out of the door, blonde hair blowing lightly in the breeze, to water potted plants: spider chrysanthemums, dahlias, and marigolds that made an autumn wall of colour against the white iron. She saw the Bentley and hesitated, watering can poised in mid-air, appearing every bit in the late morning light as if Renoir had captured her by surprise.

And she looked, Lynley noted grimly, not a day older than her photograph taken nineteen years before and religiously enshrined at Gembler Farm.

"So much for the wages of sin," he muttered.
--- (pages 177-178)

The flexibility of the mystery genre always amazes me. It is a genre defined--for the most part--by rules, conventions, tropes, guidelines and structure. Elizabeth George's A Great Deliverance is constructed entirely of familiar devices that we've seen done before dozens of times: a brutal murder in a provincial English village, a quirky cast of usual and unusual suspects, misdirection and red herrings, an odd-couple pair of Scotland Yard sleuths sent to tackle the case (who, while initially hostile to each other, find mutual respect and liking underlain with sexual tension). Deliverance could have seemed like a rote exercise in mystery-fiction 101, but in Elizabeth George's hands, it's a smart, searing psychological suspense tale with detailed character analysis and some really impressive prose, despite a few bumps along the way.

Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley is seemingly everything that dumpy Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers is not: callous, attractive, upper-class, successful. Havers is miserable and angry with the world, carrying unpleasant memories and trapped in the home of her senile parents. The two are teamed together on the case of a nasty murder in a small country village, where a hugely fat and unhappy girl named Roberta Teys has apparently beheaded her father. The evidence of a local priest suggests there's more to the story, and Lynley and Havers soon find themselves trapped in a town where dark secrets hide behind every facade. And while trying to uncover the Teys family's inner demons, Lynley and Havers must also face a few of their own.

It's funny how much Deliverance sounds like a highly typical mystery/detective novel from the premise alone. But George takes the skeleton of the mystery structure and, like many authors before her, bends it to her own uses. She's far less interested in bloody daggers and shadowy killers than she is in the psyche of her characters, whether they be heroes, villains, or something in between. She writes with a strong flair for the literary and the poetic (she's clearly never met a little-known word she doesn't like), with plot taking more of a backseat. I would personally have preferred a little more actual detective work and a little less personal drama, but George makes it work.

There are a few problems that mark Deliverance as a first novel. The beginning few chapters are sleepy and a bit off tonally, establishing no urgency or propulsion. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a slow start, but it's an unusual choice for a mystery, even one that's as low-key as this one. A few clumps of backstory are also very clumsily introduced at the outset, with the characters' internal narration awkwardly telling us what we need to know. Even throughout the rest of the book, there is a slight unevenness at times, as though George is not quite sure where to put her emphasis, or what part of the story to focus on. For instance, Lynley's complex love triangle (which is really handled quite nicely) gets a seemingly disproportionate amount of page time, while the more central story of Lynley and Havers' partnership gets put on the back burner for much of the novel.

But when George really gets into her element, she's quite excellent. She creates tension and suspense through rich and sometimes dense psychology, and through the complexity of her characters--one dull and shameless caricature aside. Both Lynley and Havers are interesting; Lynley is a more classic hero, and more likable, but Havers is more unique. Their burgeoning relationship and its growth is perhaps a little too obvious to be highly gripping, but it's nicely done anyway. The aforementioned love triangle is also a compelling element, but again, it gets just a little too much attention. Havers' bizarre home life, on the other hand, could have gotten more. It feels like too little, too late, when we finally get full disclosure of her past at the end of the novel. I did like Lynley's internal struggles with the darkness he faces as an inspector, and the way class prejudice affects his life and career. This seems like something that will be further developed in later books.

The unfolding story of the Teys family and the other inhabitants of Keldale is beautifully done, with George giving us individual pieces and viewpoints, but never the whole picture. This isn't a device she uses for plot purposes (at least not for the most part); instead she uses it to give the characters depth and dimension. The question of who exactly the Teys' were is the primary question, but since none of the family members appear until the last act, we have to rely on the perspectives of everyone else, who can't seem to agree whether they were saints or sinners. There are several subplots related to the other villagers: some work well, some don't, but they give the book a nice texture. I could probably have done without some of the haunted-abbey segments, though, since they add nothing but atmosphere.

When the final revelation does come, it's more sickening than shocking; it's less of a twist and more of an inevitable descent into horror and tragedy. George comes damn close to nailing her climactic scene of pain and rage and fiery revelation, but she leans a little too much on melodrama and just misses perfection. Even flawed as it is, there's a scorching power and assurance in that scene that's missing from much of the rest of the novel. The closing pages are rather lovely, too, and George brings the story of the fragmented, tortured Teys family to a satisfyingly resonant conclusion.

I think George has the potential to be a fantastic mystery writer; she displays an adeptness and a bent for psychological analysis that will serve her very well in the future. Most of the faults that plague Deliverance--and there are quite a few-- are things that just need a little ironing out: a smoother pace, clearer focus, a touch more urgency. The essentials are all there for the makings of a truly stellar series.

NEXT UP: The newly released A Dance with Dragons, Number Five in the Song of Ice and Fire.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan, 1993

Mat swung the staff with all his strength. The thick wood smashed into the man's head, the hood of his cloak only partly muffling a sound like a melon hitting the floor.

The man fell across the tiller, shoving it over, and the vessel lurched, staggering Mat. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a shape rising out of the shadows by the railing, and the gleam of a blade, and he knew he would never get his staff around before it struck home. Something else that shone streaked through the night and merged with the dark shape with a dull
thunk. The rising motion became a fall, and a man sprawled almost at Mat's feet.

A babble of voices rose belowdecks as the ship swung again, the tiller shifting with the first man's weight.

Thom limped from the hatch in cloak and smallclothes, raising the shutter on a bull's-eye lantern. "You were lucky, boy. One of those below had this lantern. Could have set the ship on fire, lying there." The light showed a knife hilt sticking up from the chest of a man with dead, staring eyes. Mat had never seen him before; he was sure he would have remembered someone with that many scars on his face. Thom kicked a dagger away from the dead man's outflung hand, then bent to retrieve his own knife, wiping the blade on the corpse's cloak. "Very lucky, boy. Very lucky indeed."
--- (page 371)

The Wheel of Time series, at least its first three books, is not something that can really be examined from a critical perspective, because it would fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. It kind of reminds me of the original Star Wars trilogy: no one is going to hold it up as an example of great writing, but it's a work of uncommonly good storytelling. The Dragon Reborn, like its predecessors, is great storytelling, whatever its other faults (and they are many). It's a big, goofy, apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery saga, replete with battle scenes, sage mentors, grade-school romance, nasty monsters, heroes with hidden and awesome powers. You can't help but love it a little.

After pronouncing himself the Dragon Reborn in The Great Hunt, Rand al'Thor finds himself thrust into a life he never wanted, as leader of an army. When he begins having dreams of an ancient sword hidden in the city of Tear (which will be able to confirm that he truly is the Dragon, or something), he runs from his new responsibilities to go after it on his own.

Meanwhile, Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne are enlisted by the Amyrlin Seat to track down the group of Black Ajah that menaced them in the previous book, Perrin finds himself torn between wolf and man while hunting for Rand, and Mat attempts to get the hell out of Dodge, while dealing with a mysterious new power of his own. Everyone, however, is inexorably drawn to Tear for another confrontation with the Dark One.

The really strange thing about Dragon is that Rand barely shows up, except in brief snippets. The other main characters are the real focus here. It's an unusual move on Jordan's part, especially considering what a conventional Bildungsroman the first two books were. The book suffers a little from not having a central figure, but it's also a good way to flesh out characters like Perrin, Mat and Elayne, who have gotten marginalized in favor of Rand in the past.

Mat is really the book's breakout character; he's much more fun to read about than Egwene or Perrin. With so much craziness going on, it's nice to have a character with a sense of humor (if there's anything that annoys me about Jordan's style, it's his straight-faced approach to everything, no matter how nutty). His rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold characterization is nothing new, and Jordan deals with it in a characteristically over-obvious way, but it still works. Perrin also gets some good development, as he evolves from being just a taciturn Rand-clone. The last third of the book saddles him with an annoying love interest, though, which is kind of a drag.

It's the trio of Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne (known to fans as the Supergirls) who are really aggravating in this volume. Jordan's gender-wars angle is one of the worst things about the series so far, and his female characters so often come off as dumb, petty or shrewish. Admittedly, his male characters sometimes do, too, but he commits some pretty egregious errors in characterization with the Supergirls. Egwene is too bland, Nynaeve too belligerent and Elayne too underwritten. Some of their segments do work, but overall I'd much rather be reading about Min or Moiraine.

Dragon's plot is remarkably similar to The Great Hunt's in a lot of ways: a basic quest narrative with a bunch of plot threads all leading up to one climax. The final chapters where everything converges are a lot of fun, but not really worth a whole book's build-up, since none of the surprises are really that surprising. Jordan takes a lot of shortcuts on the way and downright cheats in order to make the story fit together. His huge over-reliance on dreams is worse here than in the previous two books; he uses them to either make the plot work or to make already obvious thematic points even more overt. I've said it since the first book: he's much better at grounded, real-world action/adventure than airy-fairy metapsychics (that's not to say that his action scenes obey the laws of physics; his heroes routinely take down dozens of baddies singlehandedly).

And I must say, that if there's one thing that the series is missing so far, it's a decent villain. Fantasy series usually have memorably nasty bad guys (Gollum, Voldemort and Cersei Lannister are three that leap to mind), but Jordan hasn't produced even one. Padan Fain, who was just creepy enough to be passable, only makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in this one, which leaves us with a bland assortment of generic mustache-twirlers. Like Lanfear, who's too transparently and uninterestingly eeevil to work, or the book's main Big Bad, who is only revealed at the end, and sitting here right now, I honestly can't recall anything about him. And Ba'alzamon just makes me think of Buffy: "Yeah, we get it, you're evil. Do we have to talk about it all day?"

Maybe it's just me, but I think that Jordan's writing may have dipped in quality between the last book and this one. Descriptions are more repetitive (how many identical wharfs are there in this universe?), dialogue is hokier and more contrived, the plot points more belabored. The pacing is also off, and the multiple narrative threads don't fit together as smoothly as they should. In a lot of ways, Dragon is a rather rough novel. But then, so were the others, especially The Eye of the World.

The fact that Dragon is something of a mess is beside the point, though. It's not really supposed to be good, it's supposed to be fun. And it is, pure escapist entertainment. There is not much going on under the surface here, not much by way of truth or beauty or insight. It resembles George R. R. Martin's series in the same way a donkey resembles an elephant. Dragon is shambling and ungainly, but it's a treat, too, the kind of book that you're eager to jump back into, much as you may criticize it. If the Wheel of Time continues to be this entertaining, I'm along for the--very, very long--ride.

NEXT UP: Elizabeth George's A Great Deliverance. Yes, I know. Another British mystery. What can I say?