“THE VILLAINY YOU TEACH ME I WILL EXECUTE”
Elizabeth George may write this book, but the first five sentences of J. D. Robb’s “Reunion in Death” describe the alpha and the omega of this work more succinctly than anything I can manufacture:
“Murder was work. Death was a serious chore for the killer, the victim, for the survivors. And for those who stood for the dead. Some went about the job devotedly, others carelessly. And for some, murder was a labor of love.”
And as you read this book, it all comes down to how one defines murder and how one defines love.
This third novel in the Inspector Lynley series opens two months after the disastrous events at the conclusion of the previous novel. Thomas Lynley is working every case available to him at Scotland Yard, trying to survive Lady Helen’s self-imposed exile in Greece. As the author writes on page 8: “For the past two months Lynley had been burning the candle not only at both ends but right through the middle.”
On one Sunday evening, Barbara Havers has just about convinced Lynley to leave the Yard when they are visited by John Corntel, one of Lynley’s old classmates from Eton. Corntel is there to ask for Lynley’s help in the case of a child just discovered missing from the Bredgar Chambers school where Corntel is a faculty member and housemaster. Even though missing persons’ cases are out of his jurisdiction and the Yard’s help has not been officially requested, Lynley agrees to check it out, just as a favor to “the old school tie.”
Unknown to Lynley, Havers and Corntel, the missing child has just been found – naked, tortured and very dead. And, it seems, Lynley’s best friend’s wife, Deborah St. James, has found the body while on a photographic shoot in a famous church’s graveyard. And thus begins a most convoluted and emotionally draining murder mystery, because Matthew Whateley is not the first person to die at this school nor is he the last. Matthew Whateley is simply the only person who is murdered.
There are actually five sub-plots weaving throughout and sharing the billing with the murder investigation. First, there is Lynley’s tenuous relationship with Lady Helen. Secondly are Havers’ problems with her ailing father and mentally ill mother. Third is Deborah St. James’ estrangement from Simon following her fourth miscarriage. Fourth is the devastation and disintegration of the lives of Matthew Whateley’s parents. And lastly is Lynley’s struggle with his personal ethics versus his professional responsibilities.
Before the identity of the murderer is revealed, Elizabeth George takes us on a pointed exploration into both the written and unwritten codes of behavior that exist in many boarding schools. She tracks the effects of these codes on not only the current students and staff but on the adults who have graduated from these types of schools, particularly Lynley and Corntel. We get a hard look into bullying in a situation where a parent is not readily available, and into racial bias and class bias by both students and staff. We get just as hard a look into pedophilia, pregnancy, abortion and unrequited love.
But regardless of which plot line the author is exploring, the murder itself or the subplots, we are taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse, genuine or totally lacking. These elements of guilt, remorse and honor take Lynley and the reader through multiple dead ends, blind alleys and twists. Before the final pages, these elements are part and parcel of the destruction of at least a dozen people, not counting the murderer and the murdered. But these same elements become the beginning threads of redemption for at least three others.
This book covers only four days in the lives of many people. It begins with death and it ends with death. There are no smiles in this book; there is no laughter. There is no happy ending even though the murderer is identified. But there is hope. In the last pages, there is hope.
Cover Art from Goodreads