Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)

by Nancy Gilson

Two summers ago, Elizabeth George published A Traitor to Memory in her series of British detective mysteries.

Now, the 12th and newest in the series is out, giving readers a fix of the author's trademarks: an intricate plot, psychologically motivated murder and an upper-crust cast of earnest detectives. Between these novels, George published a collection of short stories, but nothing is as satisfying as a longer work from the canon of this California anglophile.

A Place of Hiding is vintage George: a baffling murder with tentacles that reach toward any number of suspects, from California surfers to Holocaust survivors.

The deceased is Guy Brouard, a wealthy landowner on the Island of Guernsey in the English Channel. He and his sister, Ruth, were the only members of their Jewish family to survive World War II. The siblings made a life for themselves on Guernsey. She remained single and devoted to her brother; he -- charismatic and never satisfied -- had a string of wives and lovers, each progressively younger.

Guy Brouard also dreamed of building a museum to honor the Guernsey residents who had resisted the island's Nazi occupation. But in his will, the money that should have been set aside for the project is nowhere to be found.

The prime murder suspect, arrested by the police, is a young California photographer, China River, brought to the island by her equally improbably named brother, Cherokee. (Their mother was a free-thinking liberal who spent more time saving trees than raising her children.)

Cherokee, who bounces between surfing and scamming, was hired to deliver architectural plans for Brouard's museum. The photographer talks his sister into accompanying him, and they stay awhile on the island, falling under the spell of their magnetic host.

Enter Deborah St. James, wife of forensic scientist Simon Allcourt-St. James and friend of China's. Deborah spent three years in California during a troubled time in her life and is eager to repay her friend in need. The cast expands. To the list of suspects George adds the Brouards' groundskeeper and his wife, the housekeeper; an elderly veteran of the Nazi resistance and his loyal son; a disgruntled local architect; two teen-agers befriended -- or seduced -- by Guy Brouard, along with their outraged or confused parents; Brouard's mistress; and one of his former wives, a harpy, and her troubled son.

Add to the mix the stubborn, ineffectual police and the cool, competent St. James, brought along by Deborah to bail out the Americans. At more than 500 pages, the novel joins together all the characters and threads while still giving a strong dose of character development.

In her mysteries, George gets inside each character's head, writing in third person but with first-person perspective.

The housekeeper ponders how she might have prevented her employer's murder: "For it was no easy matter to live with the knowledge that you were probably responsible for a good man's death. . . ."

The section continues with more insight into the character but never spills the solution or tips the scale.

The undercurrent in the story -- as in all George's mysteries -- concerns the private lives of the detectives, in this case the marital tension between the St. Jameses. Simon is much older than Deborah and was disabled in a car accident caused by his dear friend -- and, at one time, Deborah's lover -- detective inspector Thomas Lynley, who makes brief appearances.

Deborah is all passion, instinct and inexperience, all of which she applies in trying to prove China River innocent. Simon, to his wife's frustration and resentment, applies scientific methods and skepticism.

The "place of hiding" of the title refers to a secret stash Brouard had on the grounds of his estate as well as the recesses to which couples sometimes retreat when their clashes seem bigger than their devotion.

The Nazi occupation of the British Channel Islands has been fodder for other recent fictional works, including Tim Binding's Lying With the Enemy . George does a credible job revisiting the historical moment as well as the Nazi practice of repatriation of art.

Even if some of the elements eventually can be filed under the red-herring category, they make for a textured, detailed setting.

Copyright 2003 The Columbus Dispatch