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Murder will out, and so will secrets, in 'Careless in Red'

Murderers aren't the only ones who have secrets.

We all have them. Some are small, lies we tell ourselves to get through the day. Others are larger, incidents we've left behind, pasts we have risen above, selves we have shed.

We think we own our secrets. But when a man is dead, our secrets are no longer ours to keep.

Cadan Angarrack quit working for his old man, the surfboard shaper, but can't hold down a job of his own. His sister Madlyn's despair at being jilted is compounded by her secret pregnancy and miscarriage.

Selevan Penrule's granddaughter has him at wits' end, while his buddy Jago Reeth has an uncanny rapport with young people, considering he has no children of his own.

Hotelier Ben Kerne inexplicably stays with a wife who everyone knows is a whore. Kerra Kerne, the opposite of her mother, sees almost everything, but has questions she daren't ask.

Will Mendick loves a girl so much he'd risk prison to defend her honor. Aldara Pappas lets each of her lovers think he's the one. And Daidre Trahair pretends she didn't recognize the dead guy.

It is enough to make a policeman weary.

In Careless in Red, Elizabeth George returns to the narrative of her gentleman detective, and Thomas Lynley has enough to be weary of before he ever finds the body at the bottom of a Cornish cliff. On leave from Scotland Yard after his wife's murder, he's unable to bear the kindness of friends. So Lynley packs a small knapsack and goes for a walk. He doesn't stop walking for 43 days.

No longer connected to the Yard and a witness in the case, Lynley shouldn't have anything to do with the investigation. But Detective Inspector Bea Hannaford, overambitious and under-equipped, knows a resource when she sees one.

Soon a reluctant Lynley is corralled into looking into Daidre's life (Hannaford saw a connection there and isn't above exploiting it), and his former partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, is called from London to give him a hand — and keep an eye on him.

Technically Lynley outranks her, but this is Hannaford's show. With spiky hair and an even spikier tongue, Bea manages the investigation with competence and insight. But police officers have secrets to keep too, and Bea would rather no one knew she snoops in her ex-husband's home for signs of feminine companionship even though she keeps an active online dating profile.

Bea works closely with Havers, and you can't help but think the author meant us to compare them when she gave the two women the same initials. Fans of Havers will recognize the same prickliness in Bea, though Bea dresses better than the perpetually slovenly Barbara and is more socially adept. Both play their feelings close to the vest, and both are insightful, talented policewomen. Higher in rank and with a family, albeit broken, is Bea what Barbara could be if she tried, or what she would prefer to avoid becoming at all costs?

Lynley, as usual, works closely with no one. While simultaneously befriending and investigating Daidre, a pretty veterinarian with a tendency to lie, Lynley also annoys Bea by looking into an accidental death a generation ago. What does the past have to do with anything?

Everything, as Daidre could have told him.

For her first few Lynley books, Elizabeth George wrote tight genre novels. They were shorter and inventively plotted, but the characters were too alive for the constraints of the form. Later books turn the formula on its head; George is no longer a crime writer, she is a novelist whose plots happen to involve a crime. A few other mystery writers have done the same thing; Dennis Lehane, who mastered the genre with his Patrick Kenzie series, transcended it with Mystic River and Shutter Island.

The trap such an author must avoid is overwriting, and George is only moderately successful at this. Her love for all things English is endearing, but her descriptions of the landscape can be cloying. Setting influences plot and informs character, I get it. But I just don't need to read about any more gorse.

It's a forgivable misstep. Careless in Red is no mere whodunit. Everyone in this novel has something to hide and something to admit. For Lynley, 8th Earl of Asherton, it is that he can downplay his title all he wants, but there will always be a barrier between him and others. He can blame it on the job if he likes, but it isn't just that. Lynley's tragedy isn't that he lost his wife. It's that every connection he makes is doomed to be tainted, by his job, by his past — by himself. His challenge is to move forward, even so.

George's previous novel, What Came Before He Shot Her, about events just preceding Lynley's wife's murder, was beyond depressing. In Careless in Red, giving each character a crossroads, George lifts us up again. There is hope of renewal, if only we are strong enough to accept it.

Kate Brassfield call be reached at (727) 893-8216 or kbrassfield@sptimes.com.

Careless

in Red

By Elizabeth George

Harper, 623 pages, $27.95

Murder will out, and so will secrets, in 'Careless in Red' 05/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:57pm]
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