by Lynn Kaczmarek
I remember reading Elizabeth George's first book, A Great Deliverance, as if it were yesterday. It wasn't, of course, it was twelve or thirteen years ago. But I remember it clearly. It was a spectacular British police procedural filled with characters that made my heart ache. Scotland Yard Inspector, Thomas Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton was the privileged, tortured protagonist whose sense of guilt is ".. the prime motivation for virtually everything he does." At his right arm was his polar opposite, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, a common street officer, newly promoted to CID, who had begrudgingly worked extra hard for every achievement. Simon Allcourt St. James, a friend of Lynley's and an independent forensic scientist, St. James' wife Deborah, and Lady -Helen Clyde rounded out the recurring cast of characters.
And the story ... well, there was that incredible story. As I recall, read the last chapter two or three times lust to make sure what seemed so totally implausible was, in fact, the truth. It was. And upon reflection, it all made painful sense. Considering all the books I had read before and have read since, I have never been so moved, so affected by words on a page. Elizabeth George had left my-mind spinning, my soul filled with anguish - and me loving every single minute of it.
I've waited patiently for every new book, read them all with relish, willfully going along for the ride as Elizabeth George laid out progressively complicated psychological mysteries, created and destroyed characters before my eyes, and led me down the errant path over and over again. There are some books I've liked more than others, but at the end of each I'm left with a feeling of amazement and awe at the talent of Elizabeth George. She gets me every time.
When the galley of Elizabeth's newest book, A Traitor to Memory, arrived, there was no question in my mind who my next interview would be. And not surprisingly, my first questions were about A Great Deliverance, a production of which is planned to debut on the PBS Mystery! series next winter. Elizabeth wrote the book in about three and a half weeks - her more recent books can take ten months or more. Of course the story had been floating around in her mind during the previous school year when she taught English at El Toro High School in what is now called Lake Forest, California. And then there's the simple fact that all the characters are telling the truth... or at least their version of it. That eliminates the messy requirement for red herrings, but in my mind makes the book all the more impressive.
A Great Deliverance wasn't Elizabeth's first attempt at a book. And Thomas Lynley wasn't her first choice as protagonist. Rather a reclusive, cerebral sort of character, Simon St. James, filled that role. "He initially was going to be the main character But what happened is that having written a couple of books with St. James solving the crime, I decided to see if Lynley could solve a crime on his own. And then that was the book that got published," said Elizabeth George during our recent conversation. But Lynley didn't solve it all on his own-Barbara Havers was there right up to the closing scenes.
The relationship between Lynley and Havers is an interesting one, and well calculated by the author. Elizabeth initially created Lynley as an earl "...for my own amusement since I thought it would be more fun to write about an earl than to write about an ordinary schmuck living on a policeman's salary..." Havers was intentionally created as his opposite, a totally unlike-able, narrow-minded, unforgiving character who despised Lynley. "I thought that everybody initially would not like him, and made her questionable... It seemed to me reasonable to conclude that however she felt about someone, the reader was likely to feel the opposite." I, of course, had exactly that reaction, but had never really thought about it.
"Well... you weren't supposed to think about it," Elizabeth George answered, "that's the whole point- it's supposed to work on the reader at a sub conscious level so that the reader likes Lynley but really can't articulate why." I responded that her master's degree in Counseling/Psychology was showing. I admit I was a bit surprised by the calculation behind the relationship and then I discovered, that it is all carefully, articulately, planned, and executed.
Early in our conversation Elizabeth and I talked about authors she admired. Alice Hoffman is one. Since I also admire her work, I asked Elizabeth what she liked about Hoffman's books. "Well, a couple of things. I really like the way that Alice Hoffman uses magical realism. But I also like the fact that with an Alice Hoffman book you get a sense of being in the hands of a loving narrator." And then it struck me-I like Elizabeth George's work partly because she gives me the sense of being in the hands of a master planner. Every detail is covered, every action has meaning, every emotion has purpose. She essentially says to the reader, give me your time, and your mind, and your heart, and I'll tell you a story that will spin your world.
And she does it again with her newest book, A Traitor to Memory. Topping out at over 700 pages, the eleventh book in the series finds Lynley and Havers investigating a hit and run, and then another, and another. Interwoven is a first person narrative, a journal written by world-renowned violinist Gideon Davies to his psychotherapist, Dr. Allison Rose. It is the content of the journal that will help Dr. Rose get to the cause of Gideon's current inability to play... even one note. How the two stories relate, or even if they relate, is the initial puzzle. A then there are many, many others. Bits and pieces of the truth are meted out with a practiced hand, and all is revealed in the end. In the last sentence, to be more precise. How does she do it, I asked. And the answer is almost as incredible as the book itself.
"I'm very strongly left-brained, so I approach it in an organized fashion," said Elizabeth. "I can never get going until I have the killer, the victim, and the motive... from that I create the --expanded story idea. An expanded story idea essentially asks and answers a series of questions, because l sort of have this editorial voice standing there behind me asking all kinds of questions that will allow me to tighten the plot. Then when I have that expanded story idea I create a list of characters to people the world of the idea. Then I create those characters one by one."
"When I do the character analysis and when I do the running plot outline, I do that in a stream of consciousness fashion...whatever pops into my head. I'll set up the character and I'll say 'Eve Bowen -is a 42-year-old woman, a member of Parliament.' And then I will just start writing about her until I have a sense that what I have just written is the truth about the character. Writing for me is a very physical process as well as an intellectual process. When I've written something that I know is the truth about a character, I can actually feel it in my body... get a sense of excitement right in my solar plexus. I feel it. I know exactly when. It's like a surge of excitement that tells me that's it."
Suddenly I understand why the characters seem so real to me-Elizabeth George has created them to the nth degree.
I ask if she finds herself trying to fit everything in the book once she's written all the character analyses. "A lot never gets in the book, but I do sometimes create difficulties for myself... and what happens is that there are times when I will write a character in way too much depth and then realize I'm derailing the story... that's the danger" And she's had those times when rewrites were necessary. With Deception on His Mind, "I started out and did maybe 150 pages and realized I had made an error and had to go back again and got it up to 400 pages and had to go back again... in one case I simply didn't understand a character very well and in another case I had followed a wild hare instead of taking a look at how I had developed this character."
Well, no wonder it takes 10 months or more to write a book. "...which is pretty quick considering [A Traitor to Memory] was over a thousand pages in rough draft, Elizabeth counters. But then, of course, I had to do the second draft of both of the novels, and then I had to decide how to weave the novels together. So, all of that took a little more time than I would perhaps normally take in a book that didn't have that sort of complicated structure."
Wait a minute-both? "Yes, I wrote the Gideon narrative first and then the third person narrative. When I do a book like this I initially start going between the two of them when I write, you know maybe 50 pages of the Gideon narrative and then So pages of the third person, shifting. But ultimately I reach a point where I know that I have to continue one of the narratives all the way to the end. And in both cases of using this particular format [Elizabeth also used this construction in Playing for the Ashes], I chose to continue with the first person narrative and carry that one to the end and then go back and finish the third person." One clearly gets the sense that there is a grand plan for it all and we'll find out what it is precisely when Elizabeth George wants us to.
I suppose every article about Elizabeth George must address the question-one I learned from her web page, that Elizabeth is really tired of answering. Yes, Elizabeth George is an American born in Warren, Ohio and currently living in California. Yes, she writes-British police procedurals. She sets her books there because she likes to write about England. (She also writes murder mysteries and has never committed one, at least not one she's admitting to.) She says "I did ask Martin Cruz Smith one time how many times he had been asked why he wrote a novel set in Russia and he said if he had known how many times he was going to be asked that he wouldn't have set his novels in Russia." I tell her I won't ask the question.
But still it remains, how does she manage to get it so right? "I go [to England] about three or four times a year and stay for about three weeks. That gives me the amount of exposure I need to stay current with it, and to do my research..." Not to mention the fact that she studied and taught Shakespeare Studies. I ask if the settings in the book really exist and she says "Oh yeah, virtually all the places are places that I've actually been. I'm not very good at making up a spot ... so, what I will do is go to a place and perhaps adapt it if I need to for a novel... I find that when I go to the place I get a lot more ideas than I would if I was just sitting at my computer staring at the blank screen."
At some point during the interview on May 30th, I asked Elizabeth George if, in light of the PBS production, she had reread A Great Deliverance. She said no, "It probably looks like something with too many adverbs in it.. .I actually haven't looked at [it] in quite some time... It would probably be disconcerting." I hadn't read --it again, either. In fact, I told her, I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to-disillusionment potential, and all.
On June 1 Elizabeth George sat in her office over her two-car garage and started the expanded story idea for her new book, to be set on the Channel Island of Guernsey. I, on the other hand, sat in my overstuffed recliner and opened A Great Deliverance. And here at the computer on June 3, I can tell you there should have been no concern at all on my part - A Great Deliverance is still spectacular and the last chapter still takes my breath away. Perhaps between now and when Elizabeth George's next book is published, I'll have again made my way through the entire series. And knowing its evolution will be all the more appreciative of the creator's consummate skill.
This article is copyright 2001 by Black Raven