Careless in Red by Elizabeth George

20131115-191155.jpgThis novel was my first introduction to the inspector Lynley mysteries. I may have seen one episode on PBs, but I had never read a novel featuring him. It was a long novel, very long, but, to its credit, I have to say the story kept me engaged.

George takes her time. The novel starts in media res, a lone hiker along the Cornwall coast finds a dead body at the bottom of a cliff. The young climber had obviously fallen from the cliff. The hiker finds the closest inhabited place, a weekend cottage owned by a vet. When she arrives up, she’s startled to find the stranger waiting in her house. He takes her to the body, she recognizes the teenager, they go off to the local inn to call the police.

That starts a long, meandering story as involved as a Russian novel with almost as many characters. The hiker turns out to be Lynley, who’s ran away from his life after his wife was killed by a mugger on the street in front of their house. The vet, Daidre Trahair, isn’t as uninvolved as she leads on. The local cops aren’t of much use. DI Bea Hannafort takes over the case. She has her own problems with shuffling her teenage son to her ex-husband so she can focus on the case.

The dead teen is Santo, the son of a local businessman who’s rehabbing an old hotel into an adventure destination for surfers and cliff climbers. His family is just as messed up as the others. His wife sleeps around and everybody knows it. Then there is the surfboard maker whose son Cadan dreams of becoming a BMX star rather than shape surfboards. Their family relations aren’t any better.

You get my comparison to a Russian novel–all happy families are alike, but the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own peculiar ways. Elizabeth George explores these families with a lot of detail. But she manages to let us into the heads of the character and see their humanity. That’s what keeps the novel from getting tedious.

All along he plays an ambiguous role. He’s not the official investigator an defers to DI Hannaford, who is eager to avail herself of the extra manpower. But Lynley isn’t easily drawn in, he keeps information from her and pursues his own leads. Pretty soon it is clear to Lynley that the key to solving the murder lies in the past.

The end seems almost inconsequential. Finding out who killed Santo seems somehow not important anymore after reading about so many complicated lives, interwoven relationships and dishonesty. George leaves it to the reader to judge the characters. In the end, when we know who did it, there is no relief that the “criminal” has been caught, just the sad feeling that all this could have been avoided with a little more honesty. But that’s what makes us human, knowing better and still going down the road to perdition.

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