Monday, August 8, 2016

A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

George’s massive, character-rich mysteries are unique in the annals of British mystery writing. George’s conclusion to the nineteenth in this series leaves us as anxious to hear the future for her characters as we ever were in the beginning. She throws in everything her characters encounter in a day, making the book dauntingly long, but as I pointed out in an earlier review, look how much story one gets for the investment of a few quid.

Inspector Lynley may indeed be the spine of these novels, but to my mind, Barbara Havers is the beating heart. Her incorrigible refusal to bend to societal expectations both frustrates and endears her to us. She and Lynley are perfectly paired: they accentuate one another’s strengths and weakness. They are more together than they ever would be apart.

In this novel we are treated to a new poison, one easily obtainable on the internet, apparently. It leaves no immediate trace and causes fibrillation of the heart, which can lead to heart failure. For someone to use this against an employer or a family member, one has to be extraordinarily careful since its effects are immediate and deadly to those who come in contact with it.

This novel is about sex. “Goodness, it’s what everyone else is always thinking about, Detective Inspector,” Dorothea, the administrative assistant to Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, said to Detective Inspector Lynley on the subject of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers’ apparent lack of interest in the subject. In other words, sex is “just the ticket” for getting Havers’ mind off her possible transfer to the outer reaches of prisondom for being too inventive, too edgy in the execution of her duties.

Britain’s foremost feminist author is collecting research for a new book about anonymous casual sexual encounters with married men. She’d troll internet dating sites and when the married men responded, she’d show up at the agreed-upon site and attempt to interview them about their thinking and rationale. George doesn’t crucify these blokes: when we finally meet a few they have quite rational and legitimate reasons for what they do, and one might even come to the conclusion that their marriages, and certainly their sexual satisfactions, are enhanced by their infidelities. However, the sudden death of the feminist author is initially thought by investigators to have been suicide or murder predicated on the fact that the author apparently found the wandering husbands more interesting than just for a chat.

To my mind, partaking of the purported infidelities seems perfectly within the feminist scope. No one has ever succeeded in proving that feminists are uninterested in men, or in sex. What feminists do successfully argue about are unequal constraints within the institution of marriage or that women don’t have the same sexual freedoms as men. Presumably George knew this seemed an insufficient motive for murder because she throws many more compelling motives into the investigation until we suspect practically everyone. In the end, George concludes the episode with the coppers putting away “the obvious suspect” but not the correct one. Divine justice being what it is, however, means even we are not going to agitate for a better solution.

At this point it is worth reminding readers that Elizabeth George is American. While she previously wrote from Huntington Beach, California she now writes from Whitby Island, Washington State, right up near the Canadian border. She claims she can write anywhere, but it is true she does extensive research in the British Isles to complete the set for her mysteries. The language of her characters are even written so that we can tell who is speaking without name identifiers, a skill to which screenwriters aspire.

George had just completed all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels before beginning this nineteenth novel in the series of Lynley and Havers. What struck her was that one of Ferrante’s central characters was an unlikable character and yet we couldn’t get enough of her. That character invigorated readers because her reactions, her thinking defied our expectations. George’s creation was surprising, too, and more than a little disagreeable. She had Borderline Personality Disorder, her frantic, manic behaviors characterized by “a tendency towards unstable and inappropriately intense relationships that can be characterized by an inundation of the object necessary for need fulfillment and the sharing of intimate details early in a relationship.”

A short interview with Elizabeth George shares her thinking about the difficulties of writing a long-running series. “The themes of the individual characters’ stories have to mirror the themes of the novel, and that gets very tricky.” So, in this case, there is the discussion of sex, sexual love, and love. Many kinds of love are pointed to in this novel: the love of marriage partners, or of colleagues, or love for children, or love of self. Add to that the complicating need for sex, and you have George’s cornucopia of motives for murder.

My favorite scene in this novel may be the meal that Havers made for Winston Nkata while they worked together in the village of Shaftesbury in Dorset. Sergeant Nkata takes pride in keeping fit, running daily, and not indulging in any vices like drinking or smoking. When his work kept him from their shared accommodation until early evening, Barbara felt she “owed him a meal. He, after all, had been doing the honors with breakfast and lunch.” The starter she offered him was “savoury biscuits with orange marmalade accompanied by tuna-and-mayo paste…” I’m not going to tell you the rest, but it goes downhill rapidly from there.

When Nkata returned, he was carrying a shopping bag with fixings for homemade beef, mushroom, and lager pie with a side of sprouts with bacon, shallots, and hazelnuts.

““Shallots, eh?” Barbara wondered what the hell they were.”

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