By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, May 17, 2010; C09
THIS BODY OF DEATH
By Elizabeth George
Harper. 692 pp. $28.99
Every so often a mystery novel comes along that makes me think Edmund Wilson may have been right. Maybe mysteries -- as Wilson notoriously opined in three essays published during the mid-1940s -- really are little more than brain teasers for those who want nothing more from their reading than distraction.
There are, of course, idiotic mystery novels published every month, but they are not what tempt me (an otherwise stalwart fan and critical apostle for the genre) to take Wilson's scorn seriously; rather, it's the elaborately executed twizzler of a tale that unwinds into pointlessness that moves me to heretically entertain the truth of Wilson's famous sneer: "Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?" And that brings me to a consideration of Elizabeth George's latest Inspector Lynley novel, "This Body of Death," a.k.a. Who Cares Who Murdered Jemima Hastings and Who Remembers Why Five Minutes After We Find Out?
I used to relish the Lynley books, which have been made into a TV series shown in Britain and the United States. Exemplars of the British police procedural, the early novels were atmospheric and odd. Best of all, they were populated by a tight foursome of finely drawn main characters who shifted their insular romantic attachments as elegantly as Jane Austen's characters dance the quadrille.
Then, as the series trudged along (this newest book is the 16th entry), the novels began to get silly. Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley devolved into a Lord Peter Wimsey knockoff, and the personalities of his amateur partners-in-crime -- Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah -- eroded. In this novel the couple appear only briefly, and when they do, they natter on vacantly like Bright Young Things out of Evelyn Waugh. The figure who quickly became the most wince-inducing, however, was Lynley's underling at New Scotland Yard, Detective Sgt. Barbara Havers. Havers was introduced as a working-class rough who uses bad grammar, laps up greasy fish and chips at every meal break and never willingly wields a comb. (Here, she shows up at a murder scene wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Talk to the Fist Cos the Face Ain't Listening.") Like some mongrel hound, she is slavishly devoted to (and besotted with) the aristocratic Lynley. The class politics of the Inspector Lynley series cry out for armed intervention by whatever strangling squadrons of Marxist literary theorists remain.
"This Body of Death" only accelerates the plummet of this once interesting series. In the first few chapters, the reader is fragged by a barrage of plot shards: A grisly child-abduction tale alternates with a baffling narrative about a missing woman whose bloody corpse turns up in a London graveyard. The victim is identified as Jemima Hastings, a flighty young woman who, months before, had mysteriously disappeared from the sylvan cottage she shared with her boyfriend, a roof thatcher named Gordon Jossie, in southern England. When Havers and another detective, Winston Nkata, are dispatched to interview Jossie, they learn that Jemima's clothes and car are still on the property. (Havers and Nkata, a West Indian Brit with facial scars, are meant to be seen as supremely out-of-place in the regal, Merrie Old England precincts of New Forest, akin to Shakespeare's mechanicals blundering about the Forest of Arden.)
Meanwhile, Lynley, who's been away on compassionate leave following the murder of his wife (in the preceding novel), is summoned back to duty to guide his possible replacement, an attractive divorcee and closet tippler named Isabelle Ardery. Of course, sexual sparks fly. Here are Lynley's snobby reflections on lust with The Right Sort: "[Lynley] looked at her and she held the look. The moment became a man-woman thing. That was always the risk when the sexes mixed. With Barbara Havers it had always been something so far out of the question as to be nearly laughable. With Isabelle Ardery, this was not the case."
As the stressed-out Ardery knocks back the airplane bottles of vodka secreted in her purse and fights to gain the respect of Lynley's resentful team, Lynley delicately grapples with his grief. Murder suspects -- among them, Jemima's platoon of old lovers and Jossie's new live-in lady love -- keep scrabbling out of the woodwork, and coincidences abound. When the creaky contrivance of buried treasure ultimately pops up, "This Body of Death" becomes as improbable as that aforementioned T-shirt worn by DS Havers.
"Why Do People Read Detective Novels?" That was the title of the first of Edmund Wilson's three critical hit jobs on the mystery genre. After reading this pretentious, preposterous and overlong novel, my answer (temporarily) would have to be "Damned if I know."
Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.