- - Friday, March 23, 2012

By Elizabeth George
Dutton, $28.95 624 pages

Elizabeth George’s “Believing the Lie” is a mystery without a murder to call its own. Ms. George has chosen to indulge her psychological bent for more than600 pages in which the reader will find pedophilia, alcoholism, homosexuality, transgender surgery, surrogate motherhood and predatory sex.

But no murders. There are a couple of accidental deaths, but there is no homicide, which some readers may consider disappointing, considering the potential offered by the content and characters and inordinate length of the book which sprawls all over the place. It has neither chills nor thrills.

There was a time when Ms. George wrote tightly plotted, lively thrillers with strongly developed, often unpredictable characters like Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, surely the most aristocratic member of the staff of Scotland Yard, and his bristling and intriguing little partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who at times stole Lynley’s limelight. They are creatures of different social worlds yet they mesh extraordinarily well because they respect each other and accept their differences.

Now Lynley is a man still haunted by the recent murder of his wife, and involved, to his own apparent dismay, in a rather sordid affair with Isabelle Ardery, a neurotic detective superintendent. She not only has an unhealthy aggressive obsession with Lynley but is fighting a drinking problem, which raises the question of how she ever advanced in law enforcement without anyone noticing the supply of vodka miniatures in her purse.

Ardery’s sole reaction to Havers is to demand she do something about her clothes or her hair, which tells you something about her capacity for judgment. Lynley’s sensible and often amused reaction to Havers’ lack of fashion sense is that much of her appeal lies in her determination to march to her own drummer.

Lynley has been assigned undercover, without Ardery’s knowledge, to investigate the apparently accidental drowning death of Ian Cresswell, nephew of the wealthy Bernard Fairclough whose family has problems to spare. One of the problems is Bernard’s son, Nicholas Fairclough, a recovering drug addict with a shaky marriage. Cresswell left his family for a man, leaving behind an embittered wife who promptly flings herself into a pathetic sexual escapade with a Chinese takeout owner.

To make a bad situation worse, Cresswell’s desperately unhappy teenage son exhibits raging hostility masking a fear he may be like his father. Plodding unaided through this mishmash, Lynley enlists the help of two old friends from London to assist him and chooses two who are embroiled in an argument over whether to adopt not just a child but her family.

This constitutes much of their conversation and doesn’t make it any more interesting. Havers is not only keeping the secret of Lynley’s whereabouts despite the rage of Ardery but is coping with the problems of her friends and neighbors, Taymullah Azar and his daughter Hadiyyah. She is also receiving fashion advice from Angelina the sometime woman in Azar’s life. Havers distrusts the charming Angelina and her concern proves well justified. Domestic tragedy is ahead for the family and Havers is a little too fond of Azar.

Lynley goes forward, splashing around in a lake in his probing of the death of Cresswell. In another era Ms. George would have had Cresswell murdered in a mysterious way, which would have rescued at least that chapter. Additionally, Cresswell’s son, Tim, is so angry he destroys his little sister’s doll and sets up a dangerous meeting with a group of sadistic homosexuals.

Then there is trouble in the life of Alatea, the beautiful wife of Nicholas. They are also having furious discussions about why she can’t get pregnant. The answer to that question is probably the only real mystery in the book, and there seem to be endless extended arguments about pregnancy and the lack of it.

The book is overly complicated, with every detail examined minutely and the reader may feel that it would have been more interesting at half its length.

Ms. George is a conscientious writer and has certainly done her homework on the myriad problems that bedevil her cast of characters. The trouble is that this is a mystery in search of a mystery.

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

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