- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER

By Elizabeth George

HarperCollins, $26.95, 560 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

It is an intriguing concept to launch a book with a sentence about how an 11-year-old boy began his “descent toward murder” with a bus ride. However, it is followed by more than 500 pages of misery unrelieved by any mystery, burdened by dialogue rendered close to unintelligible by the author’s determination to be realistic, and bleakly predictable in its conclusion.

Ms. George’s popularity as a writer of mystery fiction is based on the well developed social counterpoint between her aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley and her lower class Sgt. Barbara Havers as they track down criminals across the English countryside. When the author decided to have Lynley’s pregnant wife shot as the conclusion to her preceding novel “With No One As Witness,” it was clear that she was moving her crime chasers in another plot direction, with Lynley shattered by grief and resigning (for however long) from the police force.

It seemed logical that her next book would track what happened next to Lynley and Havers, and include a review of the crime and its perpetrators. The problem is that for anyone who hasn’t read the preceding book, its successor may not capture their attention. Readers who want to know what’s next for characters already familiar to them may not care “what happened before he shot her.”

The short unhappy life of the youngster who let someone else pull the trigger of the gun that killed the inspector’s pregnant wife is not strong enough to carry the weight of an interminable and at times repetitive saga about the travails of a family sunk in the squalor of London slums.

Moreover, readers will search for more than 500 pages before they find even a reference to the murder of Helen Lynley, let alone a glimpse of what happened next. They will have plodded through a graphic and gritty saga of sex, sadism and violence, in which some characters are pitiable in their desperation, but few capture the imagination.

The plot hinges on the plight of Joel who agrees to kill in order to establish his reputation in the eyes of a psychopathic killer known as the Blade who is his mentor in crime.

“Real mugging dis time, Jo-ell. You mon enough to do it right? Cos it better be right and then you ‘n me we’ll be done … An’ one t’ing more, Jo-ell, listen good. Th’ gun got to be used, I want to hear it been fired. More exciting dat way, y’unnerstan? More like you mean business when you tell some bitch to hand over her money,” the Blade warns.

As Joel sees his own face on television screens and a massive manhunt gets under way, he doesn’t have the courage to defend himself against what he sees as inevitable.

“That lady,” he says, “I di’n’t …”

“Didn’t what?” asks the Blade.

“Didn’t nuffink,” says Joel.

“Mind you keep it that way,” smiled the Blade.

Of course the boy is arrested.

His aunt, the only member of his family who has tried to achieve a normal life, is told by a police constable that he is “talking to the sod about this little matter. Sit down, shut your mug or get out of here.”

As Ms. George puts it, in portentous terms, “This was a crime of such enormity that no punishment was sufficient to mete out to the perpetrator. One of their extended fraternity had been struck down through the person of his wife and a payment would be extracted for this crime. Thinking of what had happened in Belgravia caused blood to boil … and boiling blood produced the need to strike.”

To illustrate the consequences envisioned in this empurpled passage, there is Joel sitting in an interview room in a police station mulling over the tatters of his life, the death of his father, the mental collapse of his mother, his slut of a sister and the well meaning futility of his aunt. Still clinging to fantasy, he harbors a hope that the Blade will rescue him from the police. But what is clearest in his mind is that he must not “grass” on or betray the man who actually pulled the trigger.

“There was too much to think about and not enough words in the world to explain things in such a way that he would not end up grassing. Say nothing and you had a chance to live. Name a name and you died by degrees.”

It is Sgt. Barbara Havers, making a too brief appearance on the last pages of the book, who tells the boy the police know he wasn’t alone in committing the crime. But all Joel does is nod, “not because he agreed … but because he knew what would happen next had been long determined by the unchanging world through which he moved.”

It is a tragic story and Ms. George pulls out all the emotional stops. But her skills are those of a mystery writer, not a social historian, and this is not a mystery.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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