Book Review: This Body of Death by Elizabeth George

George  This Body of Death by Elizabeth George (HarperCollins, May 2010)

Elizabeth George is back on form with This Body of Death, the sixteenth outing for Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. Thankfully back from his sojourn in Cornwall, Lynley decides to return to work for a trial period, and is plunged right into a murder enquiry when the body of a young woman is found in a north London cemetery. Lynley’s old boss has retired and has been replaced by Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, superbly neurotic, alcoholic, failed mother on the permanent verge of losing control. (Exaggerated characters are a trademark of this author, and this one is suitably Joan Crawford-like.) Isabelle is also on temporary secondment, and whether she gets the permanent role as boss of the squad depends on the odious Sir David Hillier, a smooth political type more interested in the Met’s public image than in supporting his detectives.

Interleaved with the investigation is the story of a group of people who live in the New Forest in Hampshire. One, Gordon, is a thatcher;  another, Robbie, is an agister (responsible for the welfare of the ponies that roam freely in that region); and a third, Meredith, is a single mother and aspiring fabric designer. The three are linked by Jemima Hastings, Robbie’s sister and Gordon’s girlfriend. As the book opens, Meredith regrets having fallen out with Jemima, her best friend, a year or so previously and so goes to Gordon’s common-land house to make amends. She finds Jemima has abandoned her business and has disappeared. Gordon has a new girlfriend, Gina, who seems less than truthful. Robbie and Meredith are worried about Jemima, especially when it transpires that her car is still in Gordon’s garage and her clothes boxed up in his attic.

Meanwhile, the Scotland Yard investigation continues in typical Elizabeth George style, which I happen to find rather engaging as I see London through a rather different perspective than my own – peopled by lovable cockneys, tobacconists and psychics, who spend their time doing eccentric things like teaching ice-skating but doubling up as a gigolo in an expensive hotel. There are lots of diverting “not quite right” details: people who have lived in London all their lives drive to go shopping in Oxford Street, that kind of thing. And of course, Lynley, Deborah and Simon St James are living their eighteenth-century lives with their butlers and silver salvers in the middle of it all, another source of reader amusement.

Pretty soon, the victim is identified and Isabelle uncovers a great lead – the paranoid schizophrenic brother of an internationally renowned Japanese cellist (yes, it’s that kind of book!). The reader can guess that this poor man is probably not the criminal as his role is revealed pretty early on in the book, but his presence provides an excuse for a fictionalised take on the de Menezes shooting of 2008. Similarly, at intervals during the narrative, the author provides a retrospective account of a fictionalised James Bulger-like case in the form of a psychiatric report, which we assume is going to become relevant to the main plot eventually.

Sergeants Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata, other series regulars, are investigating the Hampshire angle to the murder when the schizophrenic suspect crops up in London, so Isabelle recalls them, much to Barbara’s disgust as she is enjoying following up the leads she has unearthed.  Suspicious events continue to happen in Hampshire unmonitored, thereafter, while the police continue their investigation in London . 

This book is absolutely packed full (it is 700 pages long). The story itself is very slow to unfold, replete with many small details about characters’ reactions to each other, their assumptions and feelings. Everything is overblown, but in an engaging way – especially when the possibility of buried treasure is added to an already rich-enough mix of red herrings and abandoned directions. There are lots of holes in the plot and various gaps in the police investigation that are rather hard to ignore.  Barbara Havers in particular puts herself in a stupid position by not calling for back-up in a situation that obviously called for it for no clear reason at all, and Gina's many illogical actions left me dumbfounded. Typical of the author, there are plenty of loose ends even in a book of this great length. But, despite the flaws, the book is absorbing and carries the reader along. Thankfully, the strange, meandering directions of the previous two books in the series (Careless in Red and What Came Before he Shot Her) have been abandoned – and the author returns to her previous formula of police procedural plus a dash of romanticised English life with over-colourful characters. If you enjoyed the earlier books in the series, you’ll probably enjoy this one, in particular witnessing the next steps in the internally convoluted lives of Lynley and Havers.

I thank the US publisher, Harper Collins, who generously provided me with a proof copy of this novel.

Read other reviews of this book at: Euro Crime (positive), Rhapsody in Books (positive), Washington Post (negative), Random Jottings (negative).

8 thoughts on “Book Review: This Body of Death by Elizabeth George

  1. Maxine – Thank you, as always, for such a thoughtful, careful review. I love the way you point up both the book’s failings and its strong points. I wasn’t sure if I was going to read this one or now, as I have been disappointed in George’s work lately. Maybe it’s time to think about putting this one on the TBR list…

  2. Driving to go shopping in Oxford Street how lovely. I used to do that regularly and park in an underground car park somewhere near Cavendish Square, of course that was in 1976!
    Thanks for the great review.

  3. Good to hear she has pulled herself together. I like the idea of bodies in the cemetery and mysterious boxes in the attic. And of course she writes some kind of modern-day Peter Wimsey story, but I have never really minded that.

  4. I am glad to hear she is back on form but I won’t be in any hurry to commit to 700 pages. I did notice there’s an audio version available and I may try that, perhaps for a long trip or something.
    I really am glad to hear that the books are back to what they were – so sad when an author goes so off the rails – and that you are less fickle than I and stuck with her 🙂

  5. I’m not sure I would actually have bought a copy of this, Bernadette, after the last two (I can forgive the odd bad book in a series but not at the length of these!) – but the publisher very kindly offered me a proof so I thought I’d give her another chance. It was a fun read, though not entirely for reasons intentional on the part of the author!

  6. If you have read my review you will see that while I thought it was better than her last two (well could hardly be worse), I found the use of the Bulger case as a plot line quite repellant and I am simply amazed that her publisher let her get away with it.

  7. Not only that but the de Menezes case, too – she clearly likes to find inspiration from these gruesome true crimes, and I dread to think what might be covered in her next. (Perhaps, therefore, not one to read.)

  8. I just finished it, after having read it in two days and a few hours. I’m tired! Overall, I enjoyed it. I’ve skipped the last two, but read all her other books, so for me this one picked up where the last procedural left off. I really enjoyed all the detail, and the secondary characters were wonderful. In spite of everything, Gordon nearly broke my heart.
    The leads, however, were a major disappointment. Not enough Lynley and Havers (the book only truly came to life when she was on the scene) and it’s been a looong time since I’ve met a character with literally not one single redeeming quality (Isabelle, I’m talking about you). What a certain other someone sees in her, I can’t begin to imagine. I certainly saw no reason why he should. I do not look forward to watching her “cock up” her next case.

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