The other side of the story
Elizabeth George revisits one of Lynley's most shocking cases
Just weeks away from moving into her new dream home, best-selling mystery writer Elizabeth George is having second thoughts about the weather. Said dream home, you see, is situated on Whidbey Island in the shadow of the rainy Cascade Mountains of Washington State. She and her husband Tom have been overseeing its construction for three years from their Seattle condo and are ready to embrace the bucolic country life. Still, George is worried about the notorious Northwest rain—she's afraid there may not be enough of it.
"I'm a [stormy] weather girl, I love weather," George admits. "The 34 years I spent in Southern California were really torture for me because I love it when it rains. I always have, ever since I was a child, because when it was rainy out, we were allowed to read and when it was sunny out, my mom always wanted us to go out and play. I'm exactly the opposite of most people; I find extended sunshine very, very depressing. It's very weird."
Her atmospheric preference certainly helps lend a soaked-to-the-skin authenticity to her 14 best-selling British mysteries that feature noble-born Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, his working-class assistant Barbara Havers and his wife, Lady Helen Clyde Lynley, who was shot and killed by a young assailant in last year's shocker With No One as Witness.
Fans left wondering about Lady Helen's murderer will be richly rewarded in What Came Before He Shot Her, a prequel of sorts that tracks the events leading up to the crime from the assailant's point of view.
As the story opens, three siblings—15-year-old Ness Campbell, 11-year-old Joel and seven-year-old Toby—are left to fend for themselves in racially mixed North Kensington when their grandmother dumps them on their decidedly non-parental Aunt Kendra and jets back to Jamaica. When Ness becomes tragically involved with sex and drugs and Toby retreats into an imaginary world of his own, Joel tries desperately to keep his family out of the child welfare system by seeking protection from Blade, a neighborhood drug dealer. Events beyond his control eventually lead him to the Lynley doorstep in Belgravia with a pistol in his hand.
In Joel's descent, the author explores some heartbreaking truths about disenfranchisement, race, poverty and the plight of children caught in a world they can neither understand nor escape.
"There are so many kids who are basically good people to whom life has dealt a very, very difficult hand of cards that they play as best they can, sometimes with tragic results," she says.
George initially planned to incorporate Joel's story in With No One as Witness. "My original intention in the previous book was to create something called an hourglass plot, in which two parallel novels run along and then meet in one terrible moment in time, which of course would be Helen Lynley's death, and then they go on their separate ways again," she explains. "But as I wrote, I began to see that, in order to do the Joel story justice, I was going to end up with a novel that was about 1,500 pages long with a cast of characters like something out of a Russian novel. I thought that what might be more interesting would be to remove the Joel story and then create an entire novel just about this little boy, so that's what I did."
George is no stranger to working with children, having taught English for 14 years in Southern California. She's also familiar with the Kensington area of London, where she's had a flat since 1995. But it took a variety of influences to capture the Anglo-Caribbean patois of the streets.
"I have always watched a great deal of British television, so that was helpful. Also, having read a couple of novels where that was used also helped. The work of Courttia Newland, a young British writer, was extremely helpful to me, because his entire book, The Scholar, is written this way. I was able to examine that and see how he was structuring language," she says.
By now, George is comfortable being known as the most famous British writer who is not British—she was born in Ohio and raised in what is now California's Silicon Valley. Still, new fans are often shocked to hear her American accent.
"Stylistically, I have always written more like a British or European writer than an American writer," she says. "Setting the books in England gives me much more leeway to do that, I think."
George became an Anglophile at an early age during the British invasion.
"It was right at the time that almost everything associated with pop culture in the United States was British in origin. There was the Beatles and all the groups that followed them, and Mary Quant from London was defining fashion, and motion pictures were introducing us to Michael Caine and Terence Stamp and the Redgraves. My cultural awareness was really informed by things British, so I had a natural interest and inclination toward that part of the world and it just never died."
Although her next novel will return to the Lynley series, George is open to attempting another stand-alone if the opportunity presents itself. "If I did a book similar to this, I would probably choose something tangentially related to another novel, and write that character's story," she says.
Would this "British" writer ever set a novel in the U.S.?
"I wouldn't shy away from it if I felt that I had a compelling story to tell in a location that really worked for me," George says. "Location is crucial to my books. I've been careful to go to places to make sure that I am going to feel that mystical or visceral connection that allows me to say yes, this is it, this is the place I'm going to write about."
A native of Washington State, Jay MacDonald now makes his home in sunny Austin, Texas.