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The plot of Elizabeth George's new and extremely long crime novel is convoluted. The basic plot is simple: a woman, Jemima Hastings, is found murdered in a London graveyard, and the police investigate her current life and her past for clues as to who killed her. Both the people who live in the same house as her and her old boyfriend who lives in the country come under suspicion, and then there's a man with paranoid schizophrenia who may have done it. What makes the book so long is that we delve into the lives of 3 of the police team, the murdered woman's old boyfriend, her landlady, her friends, her old boyfriend's new girlfriend, and others. However, by far the most interesting aspect of the book is the story of the murder of a young boy by three older boys, and the resulting fate of one of the boys convicted of murder. This is obviously based on the infamous murder of James Bulger in 1993 in northwest England by two ten-year-old boys. This part of the story is in the form of a report by a sociologist, using academic language that minimizes the moral outrage at the actions of the boys, placing their actions in the context of their dysfunctional families. We also see how, for one of these boys, after he is released from prison, he has had to change his identity and evade questions about his past.
Elizabeth George could not have predicted that just as her novel was released, one of the original killers from the James Bulger case would hit the headlines. Jon Venables was recently imprisoned again, this time facing charges of possessing child pornography. This turn of events has led people to wonder about why the standard policy in the cases of serious crime by children is to give them new identities when they are released, but there is far less concern about what happened in the children's families that led them to become sexually aggressive, murderous, and self-destructive. This Body of Death gives a picture of a former child-killer as largely self-contained and even tragic, which is hardly the sort of view we get in the popular press. So this is a provocative and surprising representation of a figure who is vilified in the popular British newspapers. In comparison, most of the other characters are far more pedestrian and do not retain the same interest. It takes concentration to keep all the different plot elements in mind, and it can be difficult to work out exactly how they are all tied up by the end of the novel. More problematic, readers may find that they don't much care about what happens to most of the characters. The morose widower Thomas Lynley, a brilliant detective coping with personal tragedy, provides a backbone of decent intelligence to the book, but there seems to be little behind the surface of the stiff-upper-lip of this crime-solver from the upper classes. The woman leading the case, Isabelle Ardery, has a secret problem with drink, but while she desperately wants success in her career, she keeps on making mistakes. Unfortunately, since she is such an unsympathetic character, we don't care whether she will achieve happiness. The most sympathetic person in the novel is working-class policewoman Barbara Havers who is dramatically unfashionable, but who is forced by Ardery to get a new set of clothes, but since she has no idea what she should look like, the effect is comic. Yet we don't learn enough about Havers to see her as a real three dimensional character, and it is disappointing that George didn't make more of her.
So This Body of Death is overly long and fails to grip. Nevertheless, it will be of interest to fans of Elizabeth George's "Inspector Lynley" series, and will appeal to those who like gritty British crime novels with a strong psychological theme. The issue this novel raises regarding how we should treat adults who killed when they were children is extremely provocative and George's book approaches it with an admirable level of seriousness, largely avoiding sensationalism. The performance of the unabridged audiobook (on 21 CDs) by John Lee is masterful, turning what would be a dauntingly long read into a pleasant listening experience.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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