THIS BODY OF DEATH opens with a sterile, stenographic sociologist’s report of a true-life, decades-old murder of a toddler by three young British boys. The tie-in between this horrifying earlier event that emerges throughout the book and the present-day discovery of the body of an unidentified young woman in a London graveyard provides a jigsaw puzzle tantalizingly laid out in its many oddly shaped pieces. Regular readers will read on, confident that Elizabeth George will place them into the picture, but you are left to wonder how they fit until the very end.
It is this London murder that has called former Superintendent of Detectives Thomas Lynley back to Scotland Yard from compassionate leave, where he has been walking the Cornish coastline for several months to emotionally recover from the murder of his wife and unborn child. The London Metro office has soldiered on without him, but just barely. When Lynley left, he made it clear he did not want to return to his job as Superintendent, and in fact was uncertain if he wanted to remain in law enforcement at all.
Isabelle Ardery, a driven, Alpha female who has come up through the ranks, is the latest candidate after several failed attempts to find a replacement. She boldly approaches Lynley with a pitch to help her not only solve the murder, but to steer her through the maze of running the London office, acting as her mentor. She is not shy about asking him to support her as the heir apparent. Office politics, always at the center of action at Scotland Yard HQ, move into high gear as the brass asks Lynley to report directly to them on Ardery’s actions and behavior. The lady comes with a troubled past, including the discretely hidden but ever-present airline bottles of vodka clinking in her purse next to the breath mints. Lynley’s assessment will carry great weight on her future. Acting Superintendent Ardery gets off on the wrong foot by rankling Lynley’s longtime former partner, Barbara Havers, when she takes Havers’s casual home-cut hairdo and secondhand T-shirts and corduroy pants to task as “unprofessional attire.” Havers’s charming nine-year old next-door neighbor girl comes to the rescue for an amusing aside in the lost cause of making over Havers.
As Lynley, Havers and Winston Nkata, Havers’s new partner, turn to solving the crime, they discover that the victim is the missing former girlfriend of a professional thatcher who restores the famous thatched roofs in the historic New Forest region of Hampshire. The girl’s brother, who works for the New Forest preserve, believes the former boyfriend is responsible for his sister’s death. Other characters who may have had reason to kill her come into play, offering a fascinating cast of artisans, mystics and buskers who drift between the quaint villages of Hampshire and the London tourist havens.
Most of the action is set in the New Forest at the southernmost tip of the heavily populated English coastline. First created by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a deer hunting park, its 200 square miles are dotted with small, quaint villages and most notably populated by its freely roving herds of ponies who graze the heath. Havers and Nkata, big-city coppers with small taste for the wilderness, find themselves in a foreign realm as they search for clues to the murder in the touristy villages and open pastures. Lynley stays behind in London to grapple with the sticky political wicket and to make a major decision about his future at Scotland Yard.
When you pick up an Elizabeth George novel, you get the whole package: a big, fat book, filled with social comment and historic background, expert pacing and suspense, and laced with a cadre of regular characters. These elements set George, the author of 16 bestselling Inspector Lynley mysteries, apart from the genre crowd. Others do it, and well --- P.D. James and James Lee Burke, to name just two --- who year after year produce the deeply satisfying reads for the mystery/suspense junkies who want to delve into subjects beyond mere whodunits. Long may they write.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 24, 2011