MURDER IS NOT THE MAIN STORY HERE
Technically, this fourth entry in the Inspector Lynley series is a prequel, taking place about a year before the events of the first novel, “A Great Deliverance.” Realistically though, this book is placed exactly where it needs to be in the series. After the bombshell that Deborah Cotter St. James laid on her husband, Simon, at the end of the previous book, Elizabeth George takes us back just far enough to get a real understanding of the original dynamics that led every character to that last point in time in that previous book.
Although written in third-person, the primary POV in this novel is that of Simon St. James. A brilliant move on Ms George’s part, Simon is practically the only character, major or minor, who does not wish “a suitable vengeance” on someone. Quite frankly, he hates himself too much to hate anyone else.
As for the others, Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton, has sought and achieved vengeance against his mother for fifteen years. At the age of 17, he caught her “in flagrante delicto” with his father’s doctor in the room next door to the dying man. For well over a decade, as the Earl, he has controlled both the property and the purse strings of the extremely large estate in Cornwall. Punishing her with long silences, few visits and absolutely no physical touch, Lynley will not even allow a single portrait or photograph of his father to be displayed at the estate as long as his mother chooses to reside there. Oh, yes – vengeance is mine, sayeth Lynley!
Deborah Cotter has, in her mind and her heart, declared vengeance against Simon St. James. Even though Deborah is eleven years younger than Simon, they basically grew up together as her father was a highly placed employee in the wealthy St. James household. Deborah’s mother died when she was seven and Simon was critically injured and severely disabled in a car accident with Lynley shortly after the mother’s death. Despite their age difference, these circumstances bonded them together tightly. However, when Deborah was seventeen, Simon sent her to America to finish her college studies in photography, despite the fact that he loved her and she had professed her love for him. And for the last three years, Deborah has heard not one word from him, not a letter, not a phone call, nothing. But she has heard from Lynley, Simon’s best friend. He has called her often and has visited her in America multiple times. He has courted her slowly and dearly. She is no longer a woman scorned. She has become Lynley’s lover and she has accepted his proposal of marriage. Now, at age 21, she is returning to London and has made very specific plans as to how she will make Simon pay for the hurt he laid on her. Oh, yes – vengeance is mine, sayeth Deborah!
Peter Lynley is Thomas Lynley’s younger brother. When their mother betrayed their father and then the father died, Thomas, in his hate and his grief, essentially abandoned his pre-teen little brother. With no one to guide him during these critical years of youth, Peter eventually descended through self-pity and depression into an addiction to cocaine. Thomas has the title, the estate, the money, the Bentley, the rank with Scotland Yard. And Peter hasn’t enough for his next fix. Hearing that Lynley is bringing Deborah to Cornwall to celebrate his engagement, Peter heads there too, with plans and announcements of his own. Peter is determined that Thomas will pay for all those years of abandonment, and not all the payment will be in money. Oh, yes – vengeance is mine, sayeth Peter!
And let’s not forget Sergeant Barbara Havers. She is not yet Thomas Lynley’s partner. In fact, she does not even personally know him at this point. She just knows him by reputation – his title, his wealth, his position in the Yard, his purported sexual conquests. And for this, she despises him. When Peter Lynley falls afoul of the law in relation to a murder and her boss is assigned to the case, Barbara is ecstatic. She looks Thomas Lynley straight in the face and telegraphs her glee and her intentions. Oh, yes – vengeance is mine, sayeth Havers!
Unfortunately, the dance card of hate is still not yet filled. One other character feels that he has been humiliated at the hands of his peers. And the plans for vengeance he sets in motion even transcend death.
So where is the murder in all this soap opera? On or about page 115 of the mass-market paperback edition, we find the body of Mick Cambrey, with a fractured skull and sexually mutilated. He is a journalist, son of the Cornwall paper’s owner, the son-in-law of Lynley’s estate manager and reputedly a notorious womanizer. Thus, the sexual mutilation comes across as yet another instance of “a suitable vengeance.”
Mick is just the first of four people who will die within one week, that same week that Lynley has taken Deborah, Simon and Lady Helen Clyde to Cornwall for the engagement festivities. Lynley is out of his jurisdiction from a police standpoint, although he and Simon investigate anyway. However, almost everyone involved is either related to Lynley by blood, employment or emotion. He is really not at the top of his game and he knows it. Simon’s ability to compartmentalize in the face of physical and emotional pain pulls the investigation together. But, basically, Lady Helen is the only principle character without a dog in this fight, so to speak. So she does what she does best, she mediates, she coordinates, and she uses both her high society skills and her acting ability to gain information for Lynley.
Elizabeth George’s writing throughout this novel is rich, full and expressive. Her characters are, for the most part, high born and/or well educated and she writes a vocabulary to match. Her physical descriptions of people and locations are crisp and clear. Her characters are multi-dimensional and she does not paint them by description or dialogue with any particular society’s morality brush. They are who they are, they think and say what they will, and they live with the consequences.
The entries in this series are usually classified as British police procedurals specializing in murder investigations. But this book, in particular, and the series is general, is not really about murder. It is about five intertwined characters: Lynley, Simon, Deborah, Lady Helen and Havers. Murder is only the catalyst that effects changes in these characters’ lives and affects the dynamics between them. This series is about people’s lives, not about people’s deaths.
Even being about people’s lives, these entries, particularly this one, are not capable of being classified as romantic suspense either. Even if there are intimate relationships involved and there are mysteries and murders, the emotional, as well as the investigative, content is dark and sometimes quite stressful to absorb. There are no overt or erotic sexual scenarios. While much is alluded to or implied, nothing is gratuitous or sensationalized. And, if you need an HEA at the end, don’t look here. In this particular entry, Prince Charming does not get Cinderella, justice is not served, and every one of our characters reaches the last page grappling with some form of a personal living hell.
Cover Art From Goodreads