Most mysteries and thrillers are plot-driven, with characters often relegated to the role of agents whose principal function is to move the story forward. But there are those, mostly series with a fixed cast, that are character-driven. As readers, we come to care at least as much about the people who are central to the story as we do about how the story is resolved. The work of Elizabeth George is a perfect case in point.
The new Inspector Lynley novel is character-driven
George’s bestselling series of detective novels features the odd couple of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers of New Scotland Yard. Both are familiar to mystery fans and television viewers alike. The Inspector Lynley series consists of 20 novels published to date as well as six seasons on the BBC, including 23 episodes, between 2001 and 2008. In the books to a greater extent than the television productions, the lively banter between these two mismatched characters lends humor as well as psychological depth.
The Punishment She Deserves (Inspector Lynley #20) by Elizabeth George (2018) 704 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
An odd couple at New Scotland Yard
Lynley is an aristocrat—an earl with the title Lord Asherton, which he refuses to use—whose family still manages to live in the ancestral pile in Cornwall. He drives a Bentley in the early novels and, later, a Healey Elliott, a classic luxury car from the 1940s. Lynley is Oxford-educated and almost invariably polite and soft-spoken. He is tall, blond, and handsome. Havers is from a working-class family. She is overweight and given to wearing T-shirts imprinted with questionable slogans as well as other clothing that her strait-laced colleagues find objectionable. She speaks with an accent and vocabulary that brand her as lower-class and crude. Both Lynley and Havers frequently clash with superiors—Lynley because his wealth and title evoke envy, and Havers because she so often disobeys orders. The two manage to hold onto their jobs simply because they are such talented detectives.
The title gains meaning as the story moves forward
In The Punishment She Deserves, the new Inspector Lynley novel, the title poses a question that gains meaning as the story moves forward. All told, there are four female characters in the novel whose behavior might merit punishment of one sort or another—and we’re not entirely sure when we reach page 704 of this long and fascinating book which one the title applies to most aptly. Every one of these four women—including Barbara Havers and Lynley’s boss, Detective Chief Superintendent Isabelle Ardery—is engaged in problematic behavior. Ardery is struggling with alcoholism, with limited success, and Havers is just being Havers. Two women in the Midlands region (specifically West Mercia) where the case unfolds are pivotal figures in the tale. George deftly takes us into the minds of all four, tracing the changes in their behavior as the detectives’ investigation moves closer to resolution.
About the author
It’s difficult (at least for an American) to think of a more quintessentially British cast of characters. Ironically, author Elizabeth George is a Texan. Here she is in the Acknowledgments to Punishment, describing the process she employs in writing these novels: “I locate the area of England that I would like to write about, I read about the area, and I spend time there scouting out location and amassing information that I hope will help me in the development of the characters and the construction of the plot and subplots.” Clearly, this is a less than complete description of the effort George puts in. Writing this story required her to learn in great detail about flying gliders and tap-dancing (yes, tap-dancing). This new Inspector Lynley novel is a joy to read.
For further reading
Previously I’ve reviewed several other novels in the Inspector Lynley series. Some of my reviews can be found at Inspector Lynley and Barbara Havers go to Tuscany, Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley novel, unpredictable as always, and “This Body of Death”: Elizabeth George indulges in sociological speculation.
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series;
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers;
- 5 top novels about private detectives; and
- Two dozen outstanding detective series from around the world.
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