Bloddy awful, by George
Author's plot twist tests fans' limits
By Ben Fox
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Disgusted. Betrayed. A real slap in the face. Judging from these and similar rants from disgruntled readers of her new novel, mystery writer Elizabeth George has done a very bad thing.
In various Internet forums, a few have declared they are now former readers of this American writer of British mysteries. One reader suggests mailing copies of the new novel back to the author. Another hopes this will be the last book in the long-running Thomas Lynley detective series.
"It's a real betrayal of the fans who put her on the best seller list," a reader wrote in a message on George's Web site. In a review on Amazon.com, another said, "The book feels like a wanton act of destruction."
What has sparked the outrage is a plot twist in "With No One As Witness," the latest installment in the Lynley series. Without giving it away, suffice it to say that the book has an unhappy ending.
Defying the conventions of mystery novels, George has allowed something tragic to happen to a central character in the series, which revolves around a British nobleman, Lynley, and his frumpy, working-class partner, Barbara Havers. In the new book, the investigators from New Scotland Yard battle a serial killer who preys on teenage boys in London.
George, in an interview during a break on a national tour to promote the book, says the offending plot was necessary to the overall story arc of her characters. She was surprised by the vehemence of the criticism but dismissed claims that she has done irreparable harm to the series, which has played out over 12 previous novels and a book of short stories.
"Whether the readers like the book or don't like the book, I always like to think my intentions are to grow as a writer," she says at her home in Huntington Beach. "If I were governed by what I thought the reader wanted to read, then I would run the risk of writing formulaic books that the reader would soon grow tired of."
So far, there's no sign that readers are tiring of George despite the harsh words on the Internet. "With No One As Witness," which was released in March, is in its 7th printing, with about 200,000 copies out. The book has already made its way to the top of best seller lists around the United States.
Much of the appeal of the Lynley books, which have been adapted into a TV series produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. and WGBH in Boston, stems from George's unconventionally complex main characters and the way they evolve over the course of the novels, said Diane Kudisch, owner of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore.
But devout readers have become so attached to the introspective, insecure Lynley and lonely, dowdy Havers that Kudisch, who considers the new book "brilliant," finds herself warning some buyers that the latest installment may upset them.
( "People who read mysteries tend to really become involved with the characters when they get into a series," she said. "I guess she'll lose a few readers, but she might gain more."
George's editor at HarperCollins Publishers, Carolyn Marino, sought to reassure those troubled over the ending: "I can understand that readers would be stunned and upset but she does not intend to end the series," she said.
To be sure, George is accustomed to criticism. Early on, some British readers would quibble over language or other details, but that has waned over the years largely because the author's many extended research visits to the United Kingdom have made her a pretty convincing heir to such luminaries of the genre as Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
These days, even some British readers think she's one of them until they hear her accent.
"I don't think anyone could write about another culture and get it 100 percent accurate," says George, who has a street map of London tacked to a bulletin board in her study and keeps several books on British slang, grammar and police procedure close at hand.
"But I have a great deal of respect for the country, for the culture, and I want to be as accurate as possible."
With her short, auburn hair and the complexion of someone who stays out of the sun, George, who is petite and almost birdlike, looks English. She has a British, or at least un-American, manner of speaking very precisely, seeming to measure her words by placing her palms in front of her as if holding an imaginary box as she speaks.
In any case, she doesn't seem like someone who lives a short drive from the ocean in the Orange County beach community that bills itself as "Surf City." But that's about to change. She has grown tired of Southern California, and she and her husband, Tom McCabe, are moving with their two dachshunds, Lucy and Titch, to Whidbey Island, Wash., when their new home is finished next year.
"The unrestrained development of Orange County has soured me on it," says George, whose airy two-story house, bright from sunlight because of the large windows, is decorated with classic black-and-white prints, mostly landscapes and portraits of people such as labor activist Cesar Chavez and artist Frida Kahlo.
George, who was born in Ohio and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area city of Mountain View, began composing short stories when she was 7, finished her first novel while still in high school and kept at it during summer breaks while working as a teacher for 13 1/2 years in Orange County.
"Writing was the way I felt most complete," she says. "It really has always fulfilled a need for creative balance in my life."
She decided to write detective stories because she has always been fascinated by crime, and it was a genre she knew intimately from teaching a course on mysteries for five years. George, who admits to being in her 50s, published her first novel, "A Great Deliverance," in 1988. The book won the Agatha Award for best first mystery novel and she was on her way.
She has been asked why she sets her novels in England so often that the question has become tiresome. The short answer is that she's an Anglophile and has been since her first visit trip to Britain in the summer of 1966. And she believes that not being British actually helps her craft the books.
"When I'm in England, I can really see the details that make it different from here. Whereas when I'm here, I become oblivious to the telling details of difference. You go to another culture and they just leap out at you," she says.
Despite the plot of her latest book, George has not grown tired of the Lynley series and plans to keep the entire cast intact in the future by writing at least one prequel. But she remains committed to the idea that characters should evolve over time, and she makes no promises about what may befall any of them in the future.
"It is the job of the novelist to touch the reader," she says. "And this book has clearly done that."