Oh, Elizabeth George. Bravely facing the challenge of trying to both satisfy her readers — who, after all, want more of the same — and keep herself interested. Possibly bored by the narrow confines of the traditional procedural mystery, and, to my mind, hemmed in by the template of the handsome aristocrat moonlighting as detective…. it is honestly quite a dilemma for an author. George tried to step outside these limitations back in 2007 with What Came Before He Shot Her, the back story of Lady Helen Clyde’s murder. (Good as George is, I had never felt Helen was more than a bundle of mannerisms, and she did seem to be keeping Lynley trapped in a relationship out of a Dorothy Sayers novel.)
But we inveterate readers of murder mysteries don’t want earnest tales of social concern. We want the traditional puzzle and solution. So what’s an ambitious writer to do? George has succeeded better than most at stitching together the requisite plot, the requisite sidekick action, and stimulating forays into what we might call a novel of social criticism. Problem is, Believing the Lie, packed with all of these contents, weighs in at 624 pages. And actually, that’s just the first problem.
The second problem is Deborah St. James, who occupies many of those pages. Deborah’s been a secondary figure from the get-go, and not much more credible than the late Lady Helen Clyde, but as long as she was kept in the background, she couldn’t do much damage. Here, George has Deborah taking on a substantial role in the investigation and she reveals herself as immature, impulsive, and hugely irritating. Her part of the plot involves endless discussion of infertility, adoption, surrogacy and IVF that feel transplanted from the pages of an earnest specialty publication.
The overall plot concerns the death of Ian Cresswell, who drowns in Lake Windermere. (Cue tourism material, especially lengthy description of both quicksand and tidal bores in Morecambe Sands, which alert the reader early one that someone will probably stray onto said sands.) Strings are pulled at New Scotland Yard to get Lynley to investigate this death which the coroner has already deemed an accident. Because Lynley has no official standing, he has to use subterfuge to gain access to the most rudimentary information regarding Cresswell’s death.
I’m leaving out a lot. (Spoilers coming.) There’s another subplot about a hapless reporter for one of the vicious British tabloids, sent to Cumbria to dig up dirt. Still another subplot about the sad damaged children Cresswell leaves behind, and yet another one about Barbara Havers’ friend Taymullah Azhar and his elfin daughter Hadiyyah (getting a little grating, that elfin-ness). And more, still more: Lynley’s sex life! Barbara’s hair! A gay love affair and a sex change in Mexico!
Remember what your parents used to say to you when you’d done something really awful: “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed.” It’s only the people we care about who can disappoint us.