In his 1977 novel Unknown Man #89, Elmore Leonard created one of fiction’s most memorable alcoholics. “She was drunk — two o’clock in the afternoon — but didn’t show it, sitting on the bar stool with her denim legs crossed.” We meet Denise Leary when she is on her “fourth double Sauterne,” and “when the level was two-thirds of the way down the glass she’d be thinking of the next one.” After that, each flawless page seems to reek of booze and desperation: “Vodka sitting on the toilet tank while you took a shower, something to hold you till the bars open at seven.”
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These are the sorts of scenes Leonard fans take for granted. They are not, however, what you expect from Elizabeth George, whose Inspector Lynley series is as firmly rooted in the English mystery tradition as Lynley is in the British aristocracy. Yet here is Lynley’s boss, Isabelle Ardery, directing a tricky investigation in George’s latest novel, The Punishment She Deserves. “Yes, vodka and tonic would be just fine, she decided. It would sit on top of the earlier vodka, the wine, and the brandy, but these had already moved nicely though her system . . . She experienced a moment of dizziness. On her feet too quickly . . . Must watch that.” For a moment we could be across the Atlantic, in a very different sort of crime novel. And Ardery’s stumble is merely a prelude. By the time The Punishment She Deserves reaches its satisfying conclusion, the detective chief superintendent’s descent will be complete. “Her head was thundering and her limbs were quaking . . . When she took up the vodka, her reason for doing so was clear. She needed it to soothe the worries . . . She drank from the bottle another time and she told herself that that was it. That was all she would have.”
The darkness here may be familiar. George’s mystery novels have always ventured into the psychological shadows, prompting early comparisons with the fiction of P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. But this portrait of Ardery in extremis is perhaps George’s finest, and with it she expertly tightens her novel’s inexorable grip, making the skid into drunkenness as suspenseful as the discovery of murder. For murder is, of course, the chief concern of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, the irresistible team that first appeared thirty years ago in A Great Deliverance. Back then each detective was somewhat crudely drawn — Lynley blond and lordly, Havers squat and bolshie — and George’s murder mystery was far-fetched. But as the Lynley series has developed, both George’s plots and her psychological renderings have acquired greater subtlety and precision. The Punishment She Deserves, for example, may have one subplot too many, but the novel’s elegant structure is airtight, and no character, however tangential, seems extraneous. What’s more, Havers, the series stalwart, is at her dogged, irreverent best — particularly when frustrated. “The one thing Barbara knew for certain at the end of her first hour with Ian Druitt’s mobile phone,” George writes, “was that the UK would have fallen to Nazi Germany had she been sent to do anything at Bletchley Park.” Havers fans, of course, know better.
False leads notwithstanding, the plot is admirably plain. In a small Shropshire town, Ian Druitt, an alleged pedophile, has apparently hanged himself while in police custody. Under pressure from Druitt’s father, a politically influential brewery owner who suspects murder, Scotland Yard sends DCS Isabelle Ardery and DS Havers to reexamine the case. And the unlikely pairing is deliberate. Havers, routinely insubordinate, is being tested by superior officers who intend her to fail. “Don’t take this lightly, Barbara,” Lynley warns her, “you’re going to need to play by every rule.” The rule of loyalty above all, Havers realizes when her boss starts to slide. “There had been something not right with Ardery earlier,” she notices, “it was what her right hand did when she took the map Barbara handed to her. It was how she dropped the right hand to her side when she couldn’t stop its trembling.” Following an attempted police cover-up, Lynley takes Ardery’s place alongside Havers, but Ardery at a distance still holds our attention even as the intrigue thickens and a murder suspect emerges.
As always, George’s cunning revelations are deftly staged. “Lynley was watching her, his expression frankly appraising,” we read of one pivotal encounter. “There was a tight little silence among them. In it, a car drove by, that irritating rap music pounding from its open window.” In quiet scenes such as this one and in alternating chapters that tantalizingly shift the point of view, George exposes not only the sordid truth behind Druitt’s death but also the frailty that deepens each of her characters, even the magisterial Lynley. “Did people actually need each other at all?” he wonders midway through the case. “He couldn’t answer that question, so he didn’t try.”