I have recently finished reading the new Elizabeth George mystery, Just One Evil Act, which is why I haven't had a moment to spare for this blog. Well, not really but pretty close. 725 PAGES!!! Would have been twice as good a book at half the size.
For non-fans, this is the 18th Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers mystery. At the end of the previous one, we were left with a cliff-hanger: Hadiyyah, a neighbour's nine-year-old daughter who Barbara has grown very close to, has disappeared. It seems highly likely that she has been 'kidnapped' by her mother who, after an absence of years, had suddenly reappeared in Hadiyyah and her father Taymullah Azhar's life. Just One Evil Act takes up the story at this point.
Barbara is as frantic as Azhar to find Hadiyyah and tries to enlist Lynley's help. Lynley shows little interest. Besides being busy pursuing a love interest, he points out that Azhar has no legal claim on Hadiyyah. He is not named on her birth certificate and never married her mother, Angelina, despite abandoning his legal wife and children for them. Barbara and Azhar hire a private detective, Dowdy, but he too offers little hope.
Months go by then a frantic Angelina turns up in London. Hadiyyah has disappeared from the marketplace of Lucca, the Italian town where Angelina has been living with her new lover with whom she is expecting a child. Angelina is sure that Azhar has kidnapped the girl. So there's the answer to why I persevered - characters I'd grown to know and like are in danger and there is a lot of mystery as to who, why and what's going to happen. Who has Hadiyyah? Will she be okay? And the dangers and mysteries multiply. Did Azhar kidnap her? If not, who did? Someone does end up dead. Who killed them?
So what was the problem? Too many characters and too many subplots. Havers' attempts to manipulate the tabloid press seemed stupid and naive, totally out of character, and did nothing but annoy the reader. They certainly didn't add to the suspense. Neither did the excess amount of time spent on the private detective Gowdy's agency and its operations, most of which was not even needed to advance the plot. As well, there were multiple machinations in the office politics at Scotland Yard, not to mention Lynley's extracurricular activities.
That was just the English side of the story. Over half of it takes place in Italy. One can't help leaping to the conclusion that Ms. George has recently started spending part of her time there. Long untranslated Italian phrases are interspersed throughout which I found pretentious and highly irritating. I reached a point where if I read one more thing about the walls of Lucca, I was going to hurl the book through the nearest window. (I mean I got it - they're old, they're unusual, they're pretty - enough already!) Much research was obviously done on the Italian legal system and its many shortcomings, and they are all painstakingly elaborated.
On the plus side of the Italian equation is the Lucca police inspector, Salvatore Lo Bianco. He is a delightful character and George's writing seems lighter and more animated when he is in the picture. One of his many endearing qualities is that he finds much to admire in Barbara Havers, including her looks. This is a refreshing change from the exasperated, grudging and often condescending attitude she receives from the English contingent, even Lynley. One hopes she and Salvatore will meet again.
If fishes were wishes, an editor will kindly but firmly take Ms. George in hand and force her to cut, cut, and cut again. Get rid of all the unnecessary plot lines. If there are more than three that are worthwhile, maybe consider writing two books instead of one. For example, Lynley's developing relationship with a woman could have waited for a book where he was the central character rather than this one where his role is peripheral. George's structure of flipping among little vignettes with the various groups of characters was very annoying. They were repetitive at almost all levels, each only minutely furthering plot or character revelation.
The problem with George's books of late is that there is an excellent book inside of a lot of extraneous stuff. I have no problems with fat books. I adore fat books - Lanchester's Capital, Franzen's Freedom, Trollope's The Way We Live Now (actually, anything by Trollope). Fat books are big books but every bit that's there belongs. With book bloat, only half of it does.