Careless in Red by Elizabeth George is a whopping book – 600 pages of small type. After the disappointment of What Came Before He Shot Her (and the time taken to read it), I was unsure whether to read this, the author's next novel. And now, having finished it, I am still not sure whether I think my time was well spent.
The essential plot is that a young man dies while abseiling down a cliff on Cornwall's coast; the death is no accident and the police have to discover who sabotaged the climbing equipment. That's the one-sentence summary: to provide a little more context, Thomas Lynley, walking the coastal path while struggling to absorb the recent death of his wife and unborn child, discovers the body and seeks help from Daidre Trahir, a solitary woman who owns a nearby cottage. The next few hundred pages concern Lynley and Daidre's slowly building friendship born of mutual pain, as well as an assortment of local families, probing the various stresses and strains in their relationships present and past; parents, grandparents and children; against a background of surfing, Cornish pasties, old seafarers in local pubs and other examples of "local colour". From an initial stance of detachment, Lynley is reluctantly drawn into the investigation despite himself, and is soon reunited with his old colleague Barbara Havers as well as meeting DI Bea Hannaford, in charge of the case. Bea has a lively personality and interesting relationship with her ex-husband the Assistant Chief Constable and their teenage son.
The pace is glacial, with oodles of pages and paragraphs of leisurely descriptions of various preparations for the tourist season as well as the domestic and inner lives of the cast of characters – in many cases rather irritating types in whom it is hard to care, frankly. The book suddenly picks up in the last 150 pages, when the police investigation bursts into life, having strangely taken a very back seat until then. (For example, chief suspects are not questioned for days and days, and Lynley potters around Cornwall digging up old histories in a hobby-like way, instead of a few constables being sent to conduct interviews, and many other basic details are simply not checked out by the police, who are said to be overstretched but seem to spend their time looking at surfing pictures and puzzling over frayed rope.) I guessed the motive for the murder very early on, and although I did not guess the identity of the murderer, I knew it would be one of a particular group of people using an assumed name, and sure enough it was. Daidre's secret was more of a surprise, but other "revelations" were predictable.
By the end of this plodding book, we sense that Lynley will return to New Scotland Yard once he has completed the coastal walk whose ending will coincide with his acceptance of widowerhood. We learn not much more about Barbara Havers, though there are some heavy hints about her and Lynley's feelings for each other. Barbara and DI Bea Hannaford are my two favourite characters, perhaps because they are the two with the most energy and verve – I felt the book would never have ended without them to push things along now and again.
As usual, everyone is in awe of Lynley, who here is more Peter Wimsey-like than ever; there are numerous references to his "breeding", and almost every character is flattered that he behaves towards them as an ordinary person rather than like an Earl (however an Earl is supposed to behave – it beats me – but everyone seems to have an innate knowledge of this and to be gratified that Lynley deigns to speak to them courteously!). This rather self-conscious treatment is grating, and adds to the general 1950s air of this book and, indeed, series, which despite a modern veneer, seems to me very much stuck in a previous era. Nevertheless, there are passages of real empathy and interest. So I am still on the fence so far as this author is concerned.