In “A Banquet of Consequences,” Elizabeth George presents one of the most wildly dysfunctional families you’ll find in fiction. At its center is the mother (and mother-in-law and wife) from hell, Caroline Goldacre, a pathological liar who has deeply damaged both her sons, driven one husband away and made the incumbent miserable, all the while proclaiming her own virtue and everyone else’s duplicity.
The story, set in London and two English villages, begins as Caroline’s troubled son Will kills himself, whereupon his girlfriend blames his domineering mother, who in turn blames the girlfriend. Caroline’s meddling has also shattered the marriage of her other son, Charlie, who spends much of the novel trying to win back his estranged wife, who wants to move on to another, more stable man.
Caroline’s constant abuse of her entirely decent second husband (“You’ve actually become a bigger fool than you were when I married you”) has driven him into the arms of a kind and loving woman, a development Caroline greets by threatening suicide even as she’s denouncing her rival as a slut.
Somehow, amid this turmoil, the scheming, grasping Caroline has found work as an assistant to a well-known feminist writer named Clare Abbott. We learn that the vivacious Clare has secrets to protect and that her friend and editor Rory, a lesbian, is in love with her. When someone is poisoned, the question is whether Caroline, who is clearly a monster, is also a murderer. Or, as she insists, was she the intended victim?
Enter beloved Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, whose personal lives add to the drama unfolding around them. This story takes place 18 months after Lynley’s wife was murdered and, although Lynley remains heartbroken, he has managed a brief, unwise affair with his attractive superior at Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery. He’s also smitten with a vet at the London Zoo, but she fears that his aristocratic origins are too unlike her hardscrabble past for them to truly connect. “A Banquet of Consequences” is, among other things, a novel about relationships, some hopeless, most difficult and one or two miraculously sweet.
Havers, as unruly as ever, lets fly at Lynley an occasional backhanded compliment such as, “You’re a decent bloke for all your fine ways and your family silver and ancestral portraits.” Havers is said to resemble “a barrel on legs with porcupine hair,” and with her Pop-Tarts diet and fanciful T-shirts (“On the eighth day God created bacon”), she exists mostly for comic relief, which the novel sometimes needs. George has one character relate in excruciating detail how she and another woman were raped by a knife-wielding intruder. The scene is not essential to the story but neither is it gratuitous; George is grimly reminding us just how ugly this world can be.
For readers determined to puzzle out who’s guilty of the poisoning, the problem is that the hateful Caroline is so obviously a suspect that our instinct is to search for a less likely candidate. Or will we be outsmarted if we jump that way? George’s mystery unfolds with great psychological depth, finely drawn characters and gorgeous portraits of the English countryside. Yet it must be said that this is a long novel and some readers, facing yet another leisurely look at English landscapes, may feel an urge to skim until the plot kicks in again.
To skim or to savor? Either way, George, an American who sets her novels in England, is an essential writer of popular fiction today.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By Elizabeth George
Viking. 576 pp. $28.95