Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

Reviewed by Jay Strafford Jay Strafford is a copy editor for the Times-Dispatch.

For almost two decades, the American author Elizabeth George has produced one of the finest continuing mystery series, novels that consistently expand the genre, novels at once intelligent, suspenseful, gut-wrenching, and thought-provoking.

To that list of adjectives, add heartbreaking.

In a stunning installment in her Lynley-Havers series, Ms. George delivers a shocker that will change her work in ways her readers could not have expected.

The vehicle for this development is With No One As Witness, the 13th in the series. When the body of an adolescent boy is found laid out atop a London tomb, the police belatedly realize that a serial killer is at work. But the three previous victims were black or of mixed race, and the latest is white. Hoping that a quick solution will forestall media allegations of institutional racism, the odious assistant commissioner, Sir David Hillier, assigns the case to Acting Superintendent Thomas Lynley.

LYNLEY'S PROMOTION has come after the near-murder of Superintendent Malcolm Webberly (Hillier's brother-in-law) in A Traitor to Memory. Aiding the aristocratic Lynley (in private life, he's the Earl of Asherton) is his longtime assistant, the feisty, working-class Barbara Havers.

The intuitive and stubborn Barbara is still smarting from her demotion from detective sergeant to detective constable after the events of Deception on His Mind. Despite Lynley's urgings, Hillier will not restore her rank; instead, he promotes Detective Constable Winston Nkata to detective sergeant -- and the motive is obvious: Nkata is black, and Hillier wants to strike first in the coming war with the media.

Nkata is surely worthy of the promotion, as Lynley and Barbara realize, but the new sergeant is resentful of Hillier's obvious machinations. Worse, from Lynley's viewpoint, is Hillier's bringing in a criminal profiler. And although Lynley grudgingly accepts that decision, he rebels outright at Hillier's decision to "embed" a newspaper reporter in the investigation.

Meanwhile, Lynley and his wife, the former Lady Helen Clyde, are preparing for the birth of their first child. While Lynley consults his old friend, forensic scientist Simon Allcourt-St. James, about the killings, Helen enlists the aid of Simon's photographer wife, Deborah, in an attempt to defuse a potential family fracas about whether the baby should be christened in a Lynley or a Clyde gown.

With her unerring sense of varied pacing, Ms. George lets the investigation unfold. Coming under the police eye is Colossus, a group that tries to help at-risk youths and whose staff includes some unusual -- if not to say shady -- characters.

EVENTUALLY, of course, the truths are revealed, but not until more lives are claimed. Ms. George's trademark -- an unblinking eye directed toward her characters -- is always in evidence, as are her psychological insight and graceful, impassioned writing. And most remarkably, she just keeps getting better, keeps pushing her work to the next level so that one is reluctant to again use the word masterpiece, not knowing what may lie ahead in her career.

With No One As Witness is a compelling read that works at multiple levels. And anyone who at its conclusion can set it aside without great pain, and even a few tears, has a soul as dead as that of those who deal death in its pages.

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