Best-selling novelist Elizabeth George lives on South Whidbey Island and sets her mysteries in England. The roughly 5,000 miles in between...
Best-selling novelist Elizabeth George lives on South Whidbey Island and sets her mysteries in England. The roughly 5,000 miles in between are erased by a system of location research that would rival that of a film scout.
George is best-known for her 15 award-winning mystery novels, most of which feature Detective Superintendent Thomas Lynley, a nobleman who works for New Scotland Yard. Lynley’s police partner is a messy, profane, working-class cop, Barbara Havers. It’s an inspired partnership that has evolved over the years from prickly tolerance to deep respect. In fact, all of Lynley’s relationships have evolved, keeping readers in as much suspense about their lives and loves as the mysteries that engulf them. An ongoing BBC/PBS series based on the Lynley/Havers partnership has enthralled TV viewers as well. It continues this summer on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” series.
“Careless in Red,” (HarperCollins; 626 pp., $27.95) George’s newest novel, uses the surfing community in Great Britain as a backdrop. People surf all over the coast of Great Britain, “but in this book, it is in the main surfing area, which is in Cornwall,” she said recently at her home on Whidbey Island. “It uses that as the backdrop, but it’s largely a book about fathers and sons, and the relationships between fathers and sons.”
It’s also the first appearance for Lynley since he suffered a catastrophic loss in the 2005 novel “With No One As Witness.” When the new novel opens, Lynley is walking the Cornish coastal path, lost in a fog of grief. He discovers the body of Santo Kerne, a young rock climber and part of a family in the process of launching an outdoor activity-oriented hotel called Adventures Unlimited. His equipment has been tampered with; he has fallen to his death. As with George’s other books, the reader is soon plunged into a vast back story of relationships and psychologically complex characters.
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It’s a level of literary sophistication readers have come to expect from George, a former teacher of English literature. “Those who have read [the books] are so anxious to know what is going to happen to Lynley,” said Seattle Mystery Bookshop staffer Fran Fuller. “And in ‘Careless in Red,’ those of us who were devastated by what happened in the previous books were given hope. And that’s no small thing.”
George’s decision to kill off one of Lynley’s loved ones in “With No One As Witness” was a plot development that shocked and upset many of the author’s fans. What was it like to close the book on a major character?
“It’s an interesting phenomenon to be the writer in this kind of situation,” George said. “Because you have to remember that the character comes from my mind and consequently is still very much alive to me, even though she’s dead to the books.”
George says the acceptance of her work in Britain “was a long time coming. They didn’t immediately embrace the idea of an American writing British crime stories, but over time, I think that I sort of won them over. By the time they made the first Lynley films, the books were really fairly well-established there. The Lynley films really helped.”
George has drawn praise for her ability to keep her finger on the pulse of British life, especially on contemporary issues.
In the case of “Playing for the Ashes,” for example, she wanted to broaden Scotland Yard detective Barbara Havers’ story, to give dimensions to her workaholic life.”I decided that she was going to have a relationship with some people, and I thought who would really reflect British society today,” she says.
“When I was looking for a family for her to become involved with, I decided I would look at this one minority group, the Pakistani community in Great Britain.”
The research for “Careless in Red” was typical of what she does with all her mysteries, doing what she calls “a preliminary reconnaissance of the area.”
She’ll spend days photographing locations and recording her impressions, go to local bookstores for guides to an area, and locate places with story potential, going back again and again until she gets it right. George also has a “cold reader,” a friend who reads all her manuscripts in their second draft form. They taught together in the English department at El Toro High School. At the point of the second manuscript, George is not looking so much for suggestions on style or mechanics as she is for the reader’s reaction.
George has also written a book of short stories (“I, Richard”), a book about writing (“Write Away”) and has edited anthologies of mystery writing. When not researching or writing, George teaches at writer’s conferences and workshops. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, George took degrees in education and in counseling/psychology. She was an English teacher for many years before publishing her first novel, “A Great Deliverance,” in 1988.
Though she no longer teaches formal classes, George still participates in writer’s conferences. (Info: www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com.) She says she’s happiest when she’s productive.
“In my life, when it has come to my writing, literally nothing has stood in my way,” she says. Because for me, writing has been really intimately connected to my mental health.”
George and her husband, Tom McCabe, a retired firefighter, built a home on South Whidbey after searching the Northwest for a place to move from their home in Southern California.
From the time they bought the nearly 10-acre property in 2002 and began construction to the time they moved in 18 months ago, they felt lucky, she says, “blessed, actually, to be able to live here. I wake up every day grateful to have found this place and to be able to build a house and move here.”