A review by Ian G. Wilson
Elizabeth George is often considered to be a great British mystery writer. The truth is, she’s quite American, though her literary mysteries are a travelogue of places in the United Kingdom. There is so much authenticity in her settings and dialog that you would think you were, in fact, reading a genuine English murder mystery.
George’s books are among the longest mysteries I’ve run across—six hundred plus pages is the rule of thumb—but they are extremely addictive. She has twenty novels in the Inspector Lynley series, and I have read fifteen of them over the past two months. I’ve used the term literary in reference to her writing—George does as well—and because of the incredible effort she expends developing stories that are as much character as plot driven, I think these books stand tall with some of the “true” literary novels currently in print. They are, of course, murder mysteries, so plotting is critical, and there are enough twists and turns so that the culprits are usually a surprise. I never was able to unmask the perpetrator of any of her books by myself. On the other hand, I’m poor at guessing criminals, so most mystery writers can have their way with me and I’ll go along with it.
George is best known for the Lynley series, and he is indeed an interesting if not quite believable character (not only is he a Scotland Yard detective, but also an earl—even more amazing is that his family still has pots of money). If you are interested in meeting the protagonist of the series, I can recommend A Great Deliverance or A Suitable Vengeance, which are early books. GPL is well supplied with George’s later works, most of which feature the inspector and his fractious sergeant Barbara Havers.
In A Place of Hiding, however, Lynley’s appearances are sparse, and the investigation is left to his close friends, Simon and Deborah Allcourt St. James. Deborah is a photographer, which sometimes comes in handy in an investigation; Simon is a forensic scientist who hires himself out to either the defense or the prosecution when they need his expertise about evidence. Both make regular appearances throughout the series, but here they have a chance to shine on their own. It is because of their loving but sometimes precarious relationship and the excitement and suspense they bring to hunting down a criminal on their own that make me recommend this book despite its absence of the main series character.
A Place of Hiding is set in the English Channel (sounds like the characters would get wet). For readers who are unfamiliar with the Channel Islands, they are a small archipelago not far off northwest France. Technically a British territory, they have considerable governmental and judicial autonomy. The two largest islands are Jersey and Guernsey (where the cows come from). There are a number of smaller islands near Guernsey as well. Aside from cows, the islands support themselves with hothouse agriculture and summer tourism. The Channel Islands are also a financial center, especially for those wishing to avoid paying the governments of their countries whatever taxes they may owe.
Probably a little known fact to most Americans is that during the Second World War, after the Nazis invaded the islands, the residents were left to fend for themselves by the British. Extreme privation, executions, and labor and concentration camps on the island of Alderney resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Even at the close of the war, the occupying forces didn’t acknowledge the end of hostilities until a day after the official German surrender. At the time this book is set, there were still many islanders alive who suffered during the war and who continued to resent the king who had abandoned them. This attitude is summed up by one of the characters in A Place of Hiding:
“’They still have it, those English, Frank. London gets bombed and the world is meant never to forget it for fifteen seconds, well here . . .? Hell. We may’s well’ve just been minor inconvenienced, for all the memories the world has of what happened. Never you mind the port getting bombed—twenty-nine dead in that, Frankie, and never a weapon we even had to defend ourselves—and those poor Jew ladies sent to the camps, and the executions of whoever they chose to call a spy. It might’ve not happened for all the world knows.’”
The St. James’s find themselves on Guernsey attempting to prove the innocence of a friend of Deborah’s from California. China River has been arrested for the murder of a local patron, Guy Brouard. Deborah studied at Brooks Institute of Photography, where she met China, a fellow photographer. Deborah’s connection to China is deep; during her time in the United States, she had a pregnancy terminated, and China was a supportive friend who was with her during the procedure.
There is a great cast of characters, from the Ouseleys, an old man and his son who wish to establish a museum as a memorial for those who perished during the German occupation, to a local architect who is distraught when not he, but a firm from California gets the nod to draw up the plans for the museum. The elder Mr. Ouseley is a cantankerous invalid who survived the occupation, and he has a secret, one lost in his own delusional mind but uncovered by his son.
There is also considerable mystery as to why Brouard chose an architect who wasn’t remotely familiar with the site, or why he chose China and her brother Cherokee River to ferry the plans to Guernsey from California. The museum was to be financed by Brouard, who, along with his now ailing sister, Ruth, were sent as children to Scotland by their parents to avoid the concentration camps. After the war, Brouard did well in business and investments, settled on a Guernsey estate and began to offer money to support artists and other local dreamers. But then his will turns up with no money for the museum, and virtually nothing for his son (whose overbearing mother is scheming to get hold of what she believes is his just inheritance). Other relatives get only small bequests, and those who wished to benefit in the will become frustrated suspects.
A Place of Hiding is fascinating in the history it reveals. The artifacts of the German occupation become important tools in the development of the plot. I did guess that the hand grenade was going to become significant, but I wasn’t sure how. There are a few questions in my mind about the probability of being able to commit the murder described in the book. All I’ll say about that is that if you can suspend disbelief on this part, you will enjoy the book. And, by the way, California poppies aren’t even in the same genus as Papaver somniferum.
The book is largely about the St. James’s and how they relate to each other when they are investigating the case. Deborah is passionate and convinced of her friend’s innocence. Her husband, not connected to China and knowing nothing about her, is more circumspect. This, of course, creates tension between the two, with Deborah unsure why Simon isn’t taking her side. As they work both with the local police and on their own, they uncover bizarre secrets stretching back to the time of the war (George’s specialty is bizarre secrets). And there’s time for sex, too. There is a lot of sex in George’s novels, which is mostly tastefully done and a bit tongue-in-cheek like this from A Place of Hiding:
“Which was what they did in the glow of a single lamp which burnished their bodies gold, darkened Simon’s grey-blue eyes, and turned to crimson the otherwise hidden pale places where his blood beat hot. Afterwards, they lay on the counterpane, which they hadn’t bothered to remove from the bed. Deborah’s clothes were scattered wherever her husband had tossed them and Simon’s shirt draped from one of his arms like an indolent tart.”
Elizabeth George was born in Ohio in 1949 and spent her childhood in California. She studied English in college with an eye toward becoming a teacher (she has considerable facility with words, coming up with some archaic forms that I had to look up in a British dictionary). She has won numerous awards for her work, and eleven of the early Lynley mysteries were adapted for television; she is one of only two American writers whose work appeared on PBS Mystery! George has lived in London, but currently makes her home in Washington State.
A Place of Hiding is the twelfth novel in the Inspector Lynley series. It was published by Bantam in 2003 and is available at Greenville Public Library.