This Body of Death by Elizabeth George
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
So goes the biblical line (Romans 7:24) that prefaces Elizabeth George’s door-stopping new crime thriller. One surmises that the ‘wretched man’ is her long-time protagonist, DI Thomas Lynley, who, as the novel begins, is absent from Scotland Yard on compassionate grounds after the murder of his wife.
The primary plot of this well-upholstered tome involves a young woman, Jemma Hastings. Wanting to make amends for past wrongs, her estranged best friend, Meredith Powell, visits Jemma’s last known address, a property in Hampshire. There, she finds Jemma’s boyfriend, Gordon Jossie, shacked up with a new woman, Gina Dickens. Gordon tells Meredith that Jemma decamped to London some months earlier without explanation, leaving behind her car and other possessions.
Thus Meredith begins an investigation, at the same time as Scotland Yard, upon the discovery of Jemma’s body in a Stoke Newington cemetery. Heading the police taskforce is Isabelle Ardery, who has been seconded as an acting replacement for Lynley within the Met. Encountering a mistrustful team, she sees that the best way to get the outcome she needs in the Hastings case is to persuade Lynley to return. (George writes conflict well, and later scenes of mutiny against Isabelle are some of the finest in the book.)
Isabelle has demons she is struggling to quell, and the perceptive Lynley notices their manifestations almost at once. Queering his pitch is the fact that the result of this investigation will determine whether Isabelle is permanently appointed or cast out, and their mutual superior, who favours Isabelle, has asked Lynley to keep an eye out for any hint that he may be mistaken.
The investigation is multifaceted and at least half a dozen viable suspects emerge. The team must interrogate the owner and lodgers of the boarding house Jemma was living in before her death, a psychic (one of the book’s less worthwhile characters) enters the picture, and when a Roman artefact of indeterminate value is found, the trail appears to lead back to Hampshire.
Cleverly, George interposes the main narrative with brief chapters elucidating a sub-plot reminiscent of the tragic case of James Bulger, the Liverpool toddler who was killed by two 10-year-olds in 1993. The eventual linking of the two storylines is unexpected and enhances the richness and pathos of the conclusion.
This Body of Death was my introduction to both George (writer of 11 novels featuring Lynley) and her DI, and I was struck by what an appealing and intriguing character she has created. Though there are several notable serial protagonists in crime fiction, I have not encountered one as well-drawn as Lynley: he is compassionate without being treacly, and inspires trust and loyalty among the jaded and battered members of his unit. He seems like someone you might know, and wish to emulate.
Additionally, there is a complex and opaque dynamic between Lynley and his former partner at the Met, Barbara Havers, a recurring character whose personal proclivities George is at pains to veil. I couldn’t decipher exactly what was at issue; other readers will likely show more intuition than I did. Doubtless, how the Lynley-Havers partnership plays out during the DI’s slow recovery will be one of the treats of George’s next work.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Hachette