Sometimes I wonder if the classic police-procedural style murder mystery has a future. The form has endured since, oh, let’s say the 1930s, bringing a lot of pleasure and diversion to millions of readers. Times change, and the puzzle-format mysteries of an Agatha Christie may not continue to please readers who are accustomed to more moral complexity and, arguably, more naturalism in their escape fiction. I say “arguably” because this is a highly artificial art form. As we know, the mystery begins with a disruption of order and ends with order restored. The problem is that restoration of order can seem contrived. What’s more, the pleasures of the serial involve a cast of recurring characters, but it can be difficult for a writer to work them all into a satisfying plot. Worse, if a series is successful its protagonists have to endure a freakish range of outlandish incidents in a compressed time-frame. The reader’s suspension of disbelief helps with many of these issues but the creators of this genre walk a fine line. The plot has to be plausible enough, but original; time must be spent on setting and mood; new characters must be believable and, if possible, major returning characters should be allowed to develop further. There are just a lot of balls to keep in the air.
And Elizabeth George juggles them like the pro she is. This Body of Death (not a great title, I’ll admit) takes up Thomas Lynley’s return to New Scotland Yard after the random murder of his wife. I’ve always thought George started writing this series as an updated look at Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey, and I found all the breathless aristocracy stuff very hard to take. But somewhere along the way Lynley burst out of his Jermyn Street tailoring and became almost flesh and blood, if a little too good to be true. I’m convinced George killed off his wife Helen because she was a walking cliché (titled airhead with a heart of gold). Now, widowed, Lynley is far more interesting.
For instance, in this book he can maybe get involved with Acting Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, his hard-drinking temporary boss. Maybe his close but complicated relationship with his snarky partner Barbara Havers will have to reach some clarity. And of course, he will probably be instrumental in solving this murder because he is so empathetic and such a good listener. It’s a good plot, too, very complex, involving a really inventive twist that George sets up from the get-go though you don’t necessarily see it as that. Briefly, a girl is murdered in a cemetery, a suspect is found, but a loose end in the investigation actually turns out to lead to the murderer. All very satisfying, right down to the statutory face-off between the good guys and the bad guys. There’s even a little tiny flicker of hope at the end for two subsidiary characters who ended up as collateral damage. My only complaint was a little too much local-color information on thatching (yes, as in those cute roofs), but I see that as a small price to pay for renewed optimism about the future of one of my favorite forms of entertainment.