The reigning queen of the British mystery, it turns out, is an Ohio native living in Washington State. Best known for her Inspector Lynley series, Elizabeth George says that what drives her books is the psychological goings-on of her characters. She doesn't even mind, she says, if readers figure out the killer before the end -- the motive will always be a surprise.
Elizabeth George was happy that her first novel was rejected.
Scratch that. She's happy now. At the time, it wasn't her best day. But the notes from her editor helped her realize that she had written the wrong book and chosen the wrong leading man. She threw out her Agatha-Christie/drawing-room-whodunit model in favor of a more modern police procedural set in the world of Scotland Yard. She promoted a minor character to her leading man, the handsome, aristocratic, Bentley-driving Thomas Lynley. And she invented a partner for him, the blue-collar, foul-mouthed, messy Barbara Havers.
"I was very lucky when the first one was rejected, because the editor explained to me why," George told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. "I had written a very Agatha Christie-esque book and she said that wasn't the way it was done. The modern crime novel doesn't have the detective call everyone into the library. It must deal with more topical crimes and the motives must be more psychological because the things you kill for are different now. Things like getting rid of a spouse who won't divorce you, or hiding an illegitimate child, or blackmail over a family scandal -- those are no longer realistic motivations."
And so, in A Great Deliverance, her first published novel, she opens with the decapitated body of a farmer, his blood-splattered daughter holding an ax, the horrified clergyman who happens on to the crime scene, and a rat feasting on the remains. Nope, not in Agatha Christie territory anymore.
George began writing as child when her mother gave her an old 1939 typewriter. When she graduated from high school, she graduated to an electric typewriter. But not until she graduated to a home computer (purchased by her husband in the 1983), did she actually try her hand at a novel. At the time, she was a schoolteacher and had been since 1974. But with the computer in front of her, she has said, it was put-up-or-shut-up time. She finished her first manuscript in 1983. But her first book wasn't published for five more years.
Though the Lynley/Havers novels are set in England -- as are the tales in her first book of short stories, 2002's I, Richard -- George is a Yank, born in Ohio and raised in Southern California. Maintaining a flat in London's South Kensington as a home base for research, George has been an Anglophile since a trip as a teenager to the United Kingdom, where she ultimately found that a British setting better served the fiction that she wanted to write. "The English tradition offers the great tapestry novel," she told Publishers Weekly in 1996, "where you have the emotional aspect of a detective's personal life, the circumstances of the crime and, most important, the atmosphere of the English countryside that functions as another character."
Readers have made her books standard features on the bestseller lists, and critics have noted the psychologically deft motives of her characters and her detailed, well-researched plotting. "A behemoth, staggering in depth and breadth, A Traitor to Memory leaves you simultaneously satisfied and longing for more. It's simply a supreme pleasure to spend time engrossed in this intense, well-written novel," the Miami Herald said in 2001. The Washington Post called 1990's Well-Schooled in Murder " a bewitching book, exasperatingly clever, and with a complex plot that must be peeled layer by layer like an onion." The Los Angeles Times once called her "the California author who does Britain as well as P.D. James." And in 1996, Entertainment Weekly placed George's eighth novel, In the Presence of the Enemy in their fiction top ten list of the year, where she kept company with John Updike, Frank McCourt, Stephen King, and Jon Krakauer.
In her mind, each book begins with the killer, the victim and the motive. She travels to London and stays at her flat there to research locales. And she writes long profiles about what drives her characters psychologically. The kick for the reader isn't necessarily whodunit but why they dun it.
"I don't mind if they know who the killer is," she has said. "I'm happy to surprise them with the psychology behind the crime. I'm interested in the dark side of man. I'm interested in taboos, and murder is the greatest taboo. Characters are fascinating in their extremity not in their happiness."
Good To Know
The original model for Lynley was Nigel Havers, the nobleman and hurdle-jumper in the film Chariots of Fire whose butler placed champagne flutes on the hurdles to keep him from knocking them over. She named Barbara Havers as an homage to the actor.
On page 900 of the rough draft for Deception on His Mind, George changed her mind about the identity of the killer.