Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Elizabeth George’s Well-Schooled in Murder


Back around August of 2009, when I was but a young lass preparing to head off on my great world-changing adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer (ha, ha, ha), it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be in the mood for reading Nabokov or James Joyce or Tolstoy for great portions of this adventure, at least the parts spent on an airplane. So I asked my mom what I should read, and she told me to buy something by Elizabeth George for my kindle. I did (her first book, A Great Deliverance), and I thought it was pretty alright but it faded quickly into the back of my mind. I can know recall only vague details, like that Inspector Lynley is in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back, that he sleeps with some lady who winds up being involved in the murder they’re investigating (though I forget in what capacity, so this isn’t exactly a spoiler), and that he has an ongoing battle with his lower-class co-worker, Sergeant Barbara Havers.

I recently picked up another one of George’s books from the Peace Corps library. Well, actually I picked up a few, and not having bothered to check publication dates, I’m jumping out of order now. I just finished the third book in her Lynley series, Well-Schooled in Murder, and…holy crap! I feel kind of like I did when I was eight and had just discovered Nancy Drew and figured out how many books had been printed about her.

I really, really liked Well-Schooled in Murder, and this sort of blind enthusiasm is probably going to set the tone for this “review.” When this book opens Lynley and Havers have been working together for about 18 months, so their working relationship is more fun (less painful) to read about. There are still some cringe-inducing scenes that take place at Havers’s home, where she lives with her ailing parents, but they seem to be fewer than I remember, or the rest of the book just balances out these scenes.

The mystery revolves around the discovery of the body of a boy, Matthew Whateley, in a churchyard far from either the private school he attends (Bredgar Chambers) or his hometown. Whateley was at the school as a scholarship student, and this and other facts of his family history send Lynley and Havers in all directions when trying to solve his murder. Everything that happened to Whateley is tied up in the school’s culture, questions of honor and integrity and honesty, and of friendship and sponsorship.

I couldn’t help comparing Well-Schooled in Murder to the only other mystery I’ve read recently, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire. George’s book was far better than Larsson’s, and much of this is due to descriptive writing. Sometimes when I step back and look at it I think, “holy crap, she just spent half a page describing the seating arrangements in a room,” but when reading these things never catch up to me. George’s depth of description is necessary to what she’s doing as a writer, and it’s often characters’ verbal tics or slight motions that reveal something of their own involvement in the case. I’ve read some great blog entries recently picking apart Larsson’s style and showing what a good editor could have done with his work, and that was in my mind when reading George. When she writes something – that someone had a hard day, say – she backs it up by showing what exactly about their day was difficult. I think Larsson would leave it at the original statement. (I can’t find the link to the blog entry on Larsson I’m talking about – if you know which one I’m thinking of, I would love the link.)

I’m going on a trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel next month (hooray! vacation! hooray!) and I’m planning to bring another George mystery along to read. Having just read her Wikipedia page, though, I have to admit I’m surprised to learn she’s an American writer. How does she manage to write in such depth about English culture and traditions? Is this a hint that I should spend some more time googling her and figuring out exactly how she wound up writing mysteries about the upper-class Eton graduate Inspector Lynley?

And any suggestions for other mystery writers I might be into?

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[…] Stewart – The Prince of the Marshes (12/27/10) Bill Bryson – Shakespeare (12/25/10) Elizabeth George – Well-Schooled in Murder (12/23/10) Jon Krakauer – Into Thin Air (12/20/10) J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of […]

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