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.

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