>At the end of her last Lynley and Havers novel, Elizabeth George stunned her fans by having the pregnant wife of protagonist Thomas Lynley murdered. The crime was stunning, shocking and signalled a possible end to the Lynley and Havers series.
With her latest novel, George chooses not to continue the story of Lynley and where he’ll go next but instead looks at the events that shaped one of the young men who killed the wife of Thomas Lynley.
What Came Before He Shot Her is a departure from the usual George mystery novel. When the novel begins, we know where this journey will end. So instead of figuring out “who done it” we are instead left to examine what series of events led Joel to become the cold-blooded killer we glimpsed briefly in the end of the last novel.
Certainly after all these years, George has earned the right to tell whatever story she wants. She’s worked hard to keep the Lynley and Havers series fresh and dynamic and while some of these experiments have worked better than others, the one thing you could always count on from George was a good mystery and some great characters (not just her usual gallery of characters but also all the suspects in the course of the story).
Which is why while I liked What Came Before He Shot Her, I don’t think it’s up to her usual standards of excellence. For one thing, as hard as George tried, I couldn’t find myself really all that compelled to learn more about Joel and his family. I understand her attempt to examine the factors that led Joel down the path to his crime at the end of the novel and the creation of a killer. Joel starts down the path with good intentions, but its circumstances that slowly lead him to that fateful day.
I think part of the problem is that it’s hard to identify or like any of these characters. There is a large cast of characters and George does her usual admirable job of making them all unique and their stories readily easy to follow. But none of them is particularily likeable–not even in an anti-hero like way. The only one that comes close is Joel’s younger brother, who wanting to protect him is what leads to Joel’s walk down the path to destruction. As the novel unfolds, you feel sorry for Joel and understand why he’s taking the path he is, but it still never makes him likeable.
Also, one of the treats of a new George novel is the catching up with Lynley, Havers and the rest of her rich cast of characters. With her usual protagonists relegated to nothing more than appearing in the final few pages, the novel loses something. Certainly George can make us care for and about characters involved in the central mystery of her story, but it’s the regular cast that makes me return time and again to her novels and enjoy them so much. Also, George has a knack for creating complex, real mysteries that are rarely predicable. Knowing where the story ends takes away some of the joy of the journey. Couple that with George making the characters and situations a bit too cliched and predictable and you come away with a novel that while good, isn’t up to her usual standards.