It’s funny the things that pop into your head while you’re driving. For instance, I was cruising down the highway the other day, and I slid in Disc 17 of Elizabeth George’s latest opus, The Punishment She Deserves. And as the latest chapter of this 18 disc/690 page long mystery began to play, it struck me that all across the world, I’ll bet there is a posse of people out there who blog incessantly about science fiction/fantasy novels, and for them size is everything.
It used to be that fantasy lovers started young by developing The Habit with the Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a mere 1216* pages (1516 if you count The Hobbit, which is a matter of controversy.) Nowadays, kids skip write to that cadre of writers known as The Dystopians: Suzanne Collins (3 volumes/1184 pages of Hunger); James Dashner (He has written several series, the most famous being the 5 vol/1911 page Maze Runner saga); Veronica Roth (3 vol/1760 wacky pages of divergence in Chicago); Marie Lu (Interesting! Her 3 volume Legend series clocks in, like Collins’ trilogy, at 1184 pages! Is there a pattern emerging?
(*all page counts stem from the mass market paperbacks)
You grow up and find yourself in those specialty bookstores where everyone needs a better haircut, and at least 17% of the customers arrive in some sort of costume. (Naw, I’m just kidding . . . sort of.) You immerse yourself in Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, and Dick. You find Frank Herbert, and even if you only read Herbert’s six novels in the Dune saga and ignore his son’s prequels, sequels and parallel novels (13 so far), you are in for 2999 pages of reading, which is certainly enough to turn thissci-fi neophyte into a sandworm. (Full disclosure: I read the first of the series. It was amazing. Then I stopped. That was easy.)
Nowadays, we’re all gaga for Game of Thrones, so much so that I actually bought and read all five books (out of a projected seven, but at the pace George R.R. Martin writes, one or the other of us will be dead before he finishes.) After 5376 pages of Starks and Lannisters, ice demons and dragons, I am . . . absolutely confused. Yet I did think for a moment about turning to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series: 14 books, 13,329 pages.
What is it that keeps drawing me back to GoT???
SF/F readers have their own Van Dine Rules of order. These all have to do with the quality of world-building and with the author’s simultaneous ability to immerse you in a “reality” that is as different from ours as possible and yet speaks relevantly about our lives and times. (The orcs were Nazis, folks!) A brilliant SF/F work is like a crash language course: you have to learn the vocabulary and culture quickly and absorb the environment until you can speak like a real Dothraki. That answers the question that plagues all people who do not read SF/F novels: Why are these books so long?????
This never used to be a problem for mystery lovers. And Then There Were None contains ten juicy murders and more suspense than anything you could find in Heretics of Dune, all compressed into a neat 272 pages. JJ once complained that Death on the Nile seemed drawn out. Indeed, it is one of Christie’s longest – at 352 pages. Compared to this, John Dickson Carr is a master of brevity: the recent re-issue of The Hollow Man packed all those impossibilities into 213 tight pages. At random, I picked up my copy of Death-Watch because it looked thicker than the others – a mere 309 pages.
Classic mysteries could afford to be brief because the world-building they engaged in was miniscule compared to the mammoth construction of an SF/F realm. Lord Dudley’s manor, the village green, the local police station, a bar, and perhaps Detective Van Pelt’s posh flat in London at the end . . . that’s all you really need. No Middle Earth, no King’s Landing, no District 10. But mysteries, as a rule, also gave short shrift to those pesky novelistic elements like characterization and theme. The book was not about generational disempowerment or the effect of post-war depression on the servant classes, even if some novels did touch upon these subjects. Authors and their readers were concerned about who stabbed Eugenie Clackett in the conservatory and left no weapon or footprints on the flower beds and managed to lock the door from the inside and disappear, all while ten old duffers were outside playing cricket and could see through the glass walls and could absolutely swear that no foul play occurred on their watch.
It’s not like that today. Mystery authors are also concerned with character. Some of them want to speak about the human condition. And some take a very long time to get to the point.
This is why, just over a year ago, I made a vow to stop buying the books of Elizabeth George, an author I have followed for the past thirty years. To put my reasons concisely – conciseness is notwhat you get when you read Elizabeth George. In addition, the death of Helen Lynley, the protagonist’s wife, may have jumpstarted something in the author’s psyche, but it led to a prolonged period where everyone was just . . . sad. And that’s not fun to read at all, not when you’re following a series. Thus, I bid the series adieu.
Well, it turns out that adieu means, “Goodbye . . . till we meet again.” And anyway, it’s not that I lied . . . I did stop buying the books. However, I figured it couldn’t hurt to get the audiobook from the library and listen to it in the car. Since the novel clocks in at 690 pages, that audiobook case was much easier to lift! Thus, I embarked on George’s latest epic, The Punishment She Deserves. It has taken me a solid month to finish, but some of that admittedly has to do with the amount of driving I do in the summer. I amcurrently overdue at the library, which won’t let me renew such a popular title, but don’t worry – the charges are on me, in service to letting you know how Lynley, Havers and Company fared in this one.
A lot of the Amazon reviewers are saying that George is “back in form” here, and I think I get what they’re saying. What has improved for me are the novelistic aspects at which George has proven herself: the characterization in this vastly populated world is just fine, the settings are good without being overdrawn (George has been known to get bogged down in scenic detail), and the soap opera that propels Lynley and Company forward is not as dreary as before. Lynley and his former partner, Sergeant Barbara Havers, are reunited, and they’re working good together again. Lynley’s tortured romantic life is barely discussed (but the brief glimpse is – sort of – positive). And after having every tragedy and indignity imaginable dumped upon her dumpy figure over the past few novels, Barbara Havers is having a good day: she’s got a new hobby (tap dancing!), she’s lost some weight, and she definitely comes off well in the current investigation.
It’s the mystery plot that still rankles for feeling stretched beyond endurance. The story begins in the (I assume imaginary) university town of Ludlow on a night when four college students decide to go bar hopping and binge drinking. On that same night, the local deacon, Ian Druitt, is found hanging in a cell in the police station. The story goes that he was dragged in for questioning because of an anonymous tip that he was engaging in pedophilic behavior, that the officer who arrested him had to then leave Druitt alone to attend to reports of college students bar hopping and binge drinking, and that in deep remorse, the deacon committed suicide.
Nearly three weeks later, Scotland Yard receives a visit from the M.P. from the Ludlow district, who happens to be friends with Druitt’s father. The old man refuses to believe what he has been told about his son: he wouldn’t fool about with children, and as a man of God he certainly wouldn’t kill himself.
Barbara Havers is dispatched to Ludlow to gather information. However, she doesn’t get to tag along with Lynley. She is assigned to work with the departmental DCS, Isabelle Ardery, who despises Barbara and at the end of the last novel made it known that any excuse to transfer the sergeant to a remote outpost of England would be welcome. Thus, Barbara knows two things going forward: this is a trap, and she had better not spring it.
As an opening gambit, this works great! The stakes are high everybody’s favorite George character, and as the investigation proceeds, Barbara gets into deeper and deeper danger. For she has sniffed out enough information to convince her that something is amiss with Druitt’s death, while DCS Ardery – who used to sleep with Thomas Lynley and whose active alcoholism has reemerged and is spinning out of control – wants to make quick work of it and sign the death off as a suicide.
Much happens in the ensuing six hundred pages, a lot of it feeling repetitious. We meet three generations of Ludlow-ites, and the general rule is that everyone plays their part – as a parent or child, a student or teacher, a cop or a professional – as badly as possible. Honestly, at every fork in the road, characters took the one with the poop in the path, to the point where I wondered how anybody could maintain any sort of existence in this town. I guess that’s what murder mysteries are all about – except when you pull back from all the sturm und drang, there really aren’t too many people who could have killed Druitt, given the nature of his death.
Still, there are many compelling scenes amongst the various families involved in the case, and it is nice to observe Lynley and Havers together again in a completely functional way. And the very best thing George accomplishes here revolves around Isabelle Ardery, a character I have never warmed to. Her disintegration into full-fledged, out of control drunkenness is powerfully rendered, her desire to be a good officer and mother warring with the constant thirst and resentment at life’s indignities fascinating to observe . George is pitiless in showing the effects of alcohol on an addict, and yet she manages to turn our sympathies around to the point that we start rooting for Ardery, even though she has been the main source of Barbara’s misery.
So there you have it! I promised to quit ya, Elizabeth, and here I am, sort of enjoying your latest effort. I do wish you’d shave them down, and I don’t appreciate getting pummeled in the brain with thematic overzealousness while I’m driving. I knowyou were an English teacher before becoming a best-selling author; therefore, youmust know which melancholy Dane said, “Brevity is the soul of wit!”
Still, I’ve followed you through nineteen novels – that’s 12,211 pages so far – and I guess I’m in it to win it.