ELIZABETH GEORGE's mystery debut two years ago with A Great Deliverance led to rejoicing by mystery fans and critics alike. Her name was mentioned in league with P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. If the acclaim was slightly muted when Payment in Blood appeared last year, there was still praise for a considerable accomplishment.
Now comes Well-Schooled in Murder (Bantam, $17.95). It is a bewitching book, exasperatingly clever, and with a complex plot that must be peeled layer by layer like an onion. No wonder at the earlier praise: stylish, literate prose, memorable characters, psychological insight, a textured narrative tapestry, an odd-couple team of detectives with a special chemistry.
These qualities again distinguish Well-Schooled in Murder. Still, with her third mystery novel, there is the nagging feeling that George may be just a trifle too clever and and that she may carry good to excess. Could there be too much detail, too many characters, too many relationships and complications to absorb?
In Well-Schooled in Murder, the nude, tortured body of a boy missing from a boarding school is found in a churchyard. The motto of the school, Bredgar Chambers, a school for gentlemen's sons (and, now, daughters), is: "Let Honor Be Both Staff and Rod." Thirteen-year-old Matthew Whateley believed in honor and the school's code of silence. And it cost him his life.
It is an old school tie that brings Matthew's disappearance to the attention of Det. Inspector Thomas Lynley, Scotland Yard's titled golden boy -- he is the son of an obscure earl. His detective sergeant is short, pudgy Barbara Havers, who wears her working-class background like a suit of armor. Theirs is a prickly partnership with unspoken respect and even affection of which neither may be aware.
One of Lynley's old classmates at Eton is a housemaster at Bredgar Chambers who feels responsible for the missing boy. When disappearance turns into murder, Lynley and Sgt. Havers, who can't resist some jabs at the upper class, must seek the motive in the secrets and undercurrents of the school's closed community.
There is the student senior prefect who may not be as sainted as he appears. One of the school's gentle lads is being terrorized by the school bully. The housemaster is a frustrated 35-year-old man ashamed of his awkward sexual gropings.
Complications pile up as Lynley and Havers find Matthew was adopted and half-Chinese. Could there be a connection to the suicide of another Chinese student at the school nearly 15 years earlier?
Once the spell of George's narrative wears off, one can't escape an uneasiness that the plot may have been tortuously complicated amd the motivation labored. Even so, George still can dazzle.
A CENTURY-OLD photo of a young woman, discovered in a worm-eaten piano being chopped up for kindling wood, holds an impelling fascination for Lowell Marshall, a young concert pianist whose career has been painfully ended by swollen arthritic hands.
It is the portrait of a Victorian beauty with a knowing smile and eyes, and Lowell, who falls in love with "Girl," as he calls the woman in the photograph, is driven to find out more about her. His Laura-like obsession is to lead to a tragedy that touches many lives in B.M. Gill's Dying to Meet You (Doubleday, $14.95).
Gill offers a distinctive voice in crime fiction. You never know quite what to expect in her novels. She writes of disturbing emotions that may explode at any moment. But, unlike the psychological novels of Ruth Rendell, Gill's crime stories do not probe the darkest recesses of the mind. Rather they deal more with the reactions of quite ordinary people when they face horrifying situations. In Death Drop, a boy is murdered on a school outing, and the grieving father is forced to examine his own emotions as he confronts the mad killer. The Twelfth Juror focuses on a man whose decisions -- both within and without the courtroom -- lead to terrible consequences.
Dying to Meet You is less mystery than a study of the haunting obsession that comes to dominate a pianist's life once his musical career is ended involuntarily. Lowell's marriage to his unemotional, practical dentist-wife ("Wasn't there . . . any laughter inside her anywhere?") already is falling apart when he inherits a rundown cottage and discovers the photograph of the young woman with the mysterious smile and eyes.
In Rose, the teenage granddaughter of the neighboring farmer-squire, Lowell finds a real-life double for the girl in the portrait. Not inexperienced, she is as much the seducer as seduced. It is a love affair that cannot escape the ominous overtones of the tragic past of the 19th-century beauty in the old photograph.
Gill, with a masterly touch for creating an eerie atmosphere that makes Lowell's obsession believable, takes a plot that may sound rather silly in precis and turns it into a haunting tale with its ironic revelations in the epilogue.
California Private Eyes
For a private investigator who specializes in the more civilized forms of crime, such as corporate espionage and fraud, Catherine Sayler has a rough time in Blind Trust (Scribners, $18.95) by Linda Grant.
She is attacked by a knife-slashing assailant while taking an early morning walk in the fog. When she leaves the hospital after visiting her lover (who has taken two slugs in another encounter), shots fly in the parking lot. Then there's a shootout with a hit man in an isolated Colorado cabin.
All this begins quite innocently with a case of white-collar crime. Catherine is hired by a San Francisco bank vice president to find a missing employee who may be planning to use his computer expertise to embezzle $5 million. The trail leads to the banking employee's Vietnam buddies as Catherine comes to realize a hired killer is following in her footsteps and wants her to lead him to the missing man.
Catherine is quite likable as a narrator- sleuth. But though she's competent, she's not special and will have to show some individuality if she is to stand out in the growing crowd of female privates eyes.
Another California private eye is V. (for Victor) McDaniel, who operates a one-man shop (next to a Vietnamese carry-out) at the end of a small L-shaped shopping mall in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Now McDaniel is something special -- even beyond his Hawaian shirts and 6-foot-7-inch frame. He's a free spirit, an easy-going chap with a realistically cheery outlook on life. And he ends up with the darnest cases, including ones involving six stolen sheep and a pot plantation spotted from a forest ranger's lookout. No big deals but intriguing. McDaniel is a great companion -- clever, funny, and resourceful -- on an investigation. And it's not all fun and games. He knows how to handle a drug dealer who runs a fast-food restaurant near a high school and dispenses drugs in packets of ketchup.
McDaniel makes his first appearance in Down in the Valley (Penguin, $4.95), now available in the United States. Two other adventures, Roses Love Sunshine and Hear the Wind Blow, Dear, are to follow. All three have been published in Great Britain.
The author of this entertaining, off-beat series is a Canadian who once lived in London, where he wrote songs for the pop group Meal Ticket and acted in a Shakespearean theater troupe. David M. Pierce now lives in Paris but remembers his days in the Los Angeles area when he came to Hollywood for a production of a musical that he co-authored. As Pierce notes in the disclaimer for Roses Love Sunshine:
"I invented many things herein . . . but someone with a more macabre imagination is responsible for dreaming up Hollywood, West Hollywood, Studio City, and the rest of the San Fernando Valley."
In Down in the Valley, McDaniel investigates the high school dope ring, meets a blond secretary who is no bimbo and can match him in fast repartee, and takes on Sara, the poet with the punk hair-do and clothes, who writes her reports in free verse when hired for surveillance.
Jean M. White regularly reviews mysteries for Book World.