Writing a whodunit is tough to get right. It needs plenty of characters, many of whom with motive to murder; it needs duplicitous clues, which might lead an investigation in separate directions; it needs red-herrings and plot twists; and it needs to drip-feed information to the reader to keep them guessing.
I don’t read many mysteries of this ilk – Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane novels being the exceptional exceptions – so when the meagre book exchanges of south-east Asia produced A Suitable Vengeance I was naturally excited.
However, the author, Elizabeth George, is not preoccupied with murder in this installment of her Inspector Lynley series. On the contrary, there’s no hint of foul play until the 130th page. That’s a lot of prose to get through before the action starts.
Instead, we have a titillating prologue of drugs and Soho clubs, followed by a long introduction of Thomas Lynley’s family and friends. Our protagonist is introducing his wife-to-be to his mother, with whom he has a frosty relationship.
Filthy rich filth
Apparently, Lynley is hugely wealthy – the 8th Earl of Asherton, no less – but he joined the police force for larks, like Will Smith in Bad Boys, but with a BMW, rather than a Porsche. And innumerable other differences.
This Lynley fellow, though written well enough, suffers from the same drab-protagonist syndrome as Dale Brown’s utterly vacuous Patrick McLanahan. He’s not as bad, by any means, but I cared very little for him because his hook – his raison d’etre – is that he’s rich. That’s not enough for me I’m afraid.
Thankfully, George’s supporting characters are richly written, with distinctive voices in dialogue and agency that carries the plot, rather than the other way around.
Of particular note is Lynley’s friend, the crippled forensic scientist Simon St James, who is left stranded by his immobility when his loved ones are in danger. It’s like Ironside, without the young officers to catch the bad guys, and if Ironside himself was hopelessly in love with his best friend’s fiancé. I never saw that episode, anyway.
The book reads more like a “A St James Mystery” – his is the struggle, the change, the triumph over adversity. His involvement in the love-triangle between Lynley and Lynley’s betrothed, Deborah, is the meat of the book.
Like the clues left behind, the book’s title is misleading: A Suitable Vengeance might better be called Love in the Time of Coroners, or something. But George was clearly too keen on the suitor/ suitable wordplay to trade up.
The inter-character relations are fleshed out, diverse and thoroughly believable, as is the dialogue. But when the investigations do begin, George handles the evidence and suppositions with a deft hand. Our suspicions waiver with every chapter, keeping the mystery alive until the final chapter of the novel-proper. Then, of course, there is a lengthy epilogue that wraps up the love story.
Metaphor goodness sake…
The writing is descriptive and evocative – although at times a little too contrived. Before we discover the first victim, it is heralded as though through a loudspeaker:
“Gull Cottage… sat on the corner of Virgin Place, looking like a whitewashed matchbox, with bright blue trim on its windows and a lavishly blossoming fuchsia growing next to its front door. Blood-red flowers blown from this plant covered the ground nearby.”
Oh really, did it? Like a pool of blood was it? Like a dead person’s pool of blood? OH, WAIT A SECOND, THERE’S A DEAD PERSON’S POOL OF BLOOD.
You might argue it raises tension, but I think this technique needs to be more obscure than that. Does it not spoil the reveal of the body if you know it’s coming?
So, while I enjoyed the read, I probably wouldn’t read another, unless I was doing research for a whodunit. However, I would read another if the focus was once again on the intriguing and troubled Simon St James.