I happened to read back to back two new novels by Americans who write long-running mystery series set in England. Both are character-driven police procedurals. Both have a nice balance of nifty plot twists and progress in the series characters’ lives and relationships. The characters involved in the investigation are developed fully enough for the reader to become engaged with them. Both authors are multiple award winners. But I can recommend only one of these books without reservation. While I enjoyed reading the other, I have, well, reservations.
In both Deborah Crombie’s No Mark Upon Her and Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie, the series protagonist suspects an ulterior motive when his boss asks him to take on a case that is outside his usual routine. Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is sent to Henley, home of the Royal Regatta, to investigate the drowning of an elite rower who was also a high-ranking police detective. A strong hint that settling on the victim’s husband as the murderer would be a satisfactory outcome arouses Kincaid’s determination to look deeper for the solution. Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley is also asked to investigate a drowning in the Lake District in Cumbria. At the behest of an influential crony of his boss’s, he is to go undercover and to tell no one, including his own superior and his investigative team.
In the meantime, Kincaid’s wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, is looking forward to handing over the care of their three children—his, hers, and a three-year-old adopted girl of mixed race with separation anxiety and a passion for Alice in Wonderland—to Kincaid so she can get back to the job. Lynley’s partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, is reluctantly becoming friends with the no-longer-runaway wife of her friend and neighbor Taymullah Azhar and mother of his daughter Hadiyya and even more reluctantly trying to obey her boss’s order to get an extreme makeover. Plenty of complications ensue in the investigations and subplots of both books.
Both authors are New York Times bestsellers. Both are considered master storytellers. Both are widely admired for the psychological depth of their characters. So why do I give Crombie’s book a full two thumbs up, while George’s leaves me wiggling ’em around a little? The answer lies in the point I started with: how each of them handles the challenge of being an American writing about contemporary England.
It’s not the authenticity of the settings. Both authors have done their homework thoroughly. But Crombie has an ear, and in my humble opinion, as we say on the Internet, George does not. Crombie’s mastery of British idiom, with its subtleties of class and place, is so smooth that not for a second do we get jerked out of the story by a word or expression that doesn’t fit. The language is authentic, and the reader never has to think about that fact that the author is an American.
I wish I could say the same for George. She has been irritating me since her first novel by throwing in vocabulary that she might have gotten from Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse. It’s not as bad as it used to be. She didn’t commit “chuffed” (from the wrong person) or “innit” (in the wrong sentence) in this book at all. But she keeps using “meant to” for “supposed to,” in dialogue— “You’re meant to be there as soon as possible,” instead of “You’re supposed to be there...” or “He expects you there...” and “It’s meant to be a surprise” instead of “It’s a surprise”—and in narrative—“This seemed to be code for the fact that Lynley was meant to do nothing at all if Nicholas Fairclough turned out to be the killer”—as well. That’s another one, “as well”—sprinkled in to remind us unnecessarily that Brits often use the phrase instead of “too.” I’m no Henry Higgins, but I suspect (“suss out” is another one) that the lower middle class is more likely to use many of the words that George attributes to characters from the titled, Oxford-educated Lynley to laborers and sheep herders.
All of Crombie’s dialogue is believable; to my ear, a lot of George’s is not. Furthermore, all of Crombie’s characters are believable, while some of George’s behave like idiots, if not implausible constructs. I had particular trouble believing in the naiveté to the point of cluelessness of the young tabloid reporter in this book and in the length to which ongoing series character Deborah St. James went in impersonating a police officer. No one who’s ever seen a TV show would make the mistakes she does, with catastrophic results.
In spite of its flaws, Believing the Lie is an entertaining read with a plausible tragedy or two at its heart. But if you want an author you can trust completely, pick Crombie and No Mark Upon Her.