Elizabeth George: In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner
Now, I don't know how many of you out there are familiar with the work of Elizabeth George, but I really, really enjoy her books. They mix the kind of classic mystery feel with a contemporary sensibility. The characters are what's important, not the plot (that's what I mean by "classic") but they are developed in a convincingly modern way, with modern problems, instead of being just Dorothy Sayers clones. Although a lot of people tend to compare George with Sayers because they both deal with aristocratic detectives, the crucial difference is that Thomas Lynely, George's aristocratic detective, is a man of his time, slightly embarrassed not so much about his title but about his wealth, and often the butt of jokes, envy and problems (can one be the butt of a problem?) because of it.
But what I like the most is that Lynely is incompetent. Okay, so I've got a thing about incompetent detectives, I'll admit it. I can enjoy Hercule Poirot and the Saint as much as the next person (and probably more), but imperfect detectives just get me. You know, ordinary, normal people, who get carried away by their personal agendas, fears, preconceptions. Whose plans go wrong. Who don't always do the right thing. That's why I like Martha Grimes, that's why I like Melisa Michaels, and that's one of the most important reasons why I like Elizabeth George. Because Thomas Lynely is an opinionated, stubborn, short-sighted little prig. Occasionally.
Lynely quarrels with Havers (for those unfamiliar with the series, Barbara Havers is his chief assistant and co-worker, who ended the previous book in the series shooting at a superior officer in the middle of a chase so that she could turn the boat around and save a little girl from drowning) and doesn't even raise his voice to protect her when half the police wants to kick her out of the force for interrupting a chase over a "Paki brat". Havers does get protection, though, so she's only demoted to DC rank, and that's when the real fun begins. Havers being Havers, she doesn't agree with Lynely's insistence that she toe the line now, and pushes into the current investigation although he tries his best to keep her out of it. And solves the crime, while Lynely not only fails to solve it, but manages to quarrel with his wife and botch up his end of things sufficiently to be partially responsible for another death. Or at least he sees it that way, which is why I love him, despite--or because of--his shortcomings.
On the mystery side, as is usual with George, the crime ties in with the themes developed in the running characters portion, so the questions raised have to do with trust, openness, and how much one can protect another human being at all. And how much one can force another person into a pre-defined mould. The misunderstanding between Lynely's murder suspect and his wife, which leads to the suspect's suicide, is wonderfully ironic, if you like that kind of thing. And Lynely's self-doubts, which make him suspect the man in the first place, are played out with the usual George grace and style.
About the only part of the book which didn't quite work for me was the relationship between Lynely and Helen (his wife). Although it's used to support the main themes, it gets a little strained in the part where Helen starts getting self-doubts, and dissolves into over-explanation in the final resolution. However, it's only a minor portion of the book, and all the main ingredients were so mastefully mixed that one little slip didn't really produce any great damage. While not the best of the series, this book certainly is in the upper half.