Thursday, March 8, 2012

Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George

Elizabeth Zelvin

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.


Catherine said...

Liz, I also read these two books back to back. I really enjoy both series and admire both writers. In fact, I wanted to be Elizabeth George when I started writing.

For me, Crombie is much simpler in that she focuses on her two main characters solving the crime, with the supporting cast in the background.

George on the other hand has a larger group of characters and more subplots or threads in her books. I agree that the Reporter's subplot could be eliminated from her book without impacting the story/plot. I also agree that Deborah's actions in the book were irresponsible and I would not let her off the hook as Lynly does - Yes the problem was there but she was responsible for the outcome. Deborah consistenly comes across as infantile, a spoiled brat.

For me, in George's books, Havers lights up the page, so to speak. She is a great character. I wish I had created her.

I will continue to read both George and Crombie. And, now that I'm a more experienced writer, I aspire to be both, Crombie and George.

Catherine Maiorisi

Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz, why do you consider the use of "meant to" a mistake? JK Rowling uses it all the time, as do many other British writers, where an American would say "supposed to." (I don't know enough Brits in person to know what they say, or the class differences.)

Kathy said...

I've never read Crombie, but I've been reading George for years with pleasure. However, with her latest book, I wanted to get out my red pencil and tighten up sentences. And Deborah has begun to irritate me. It also seems George's characters haven't made the jump into the digital age. Deborah used her own name while "undercover," obviously without considering that she might be Googled, and what Havers found online didn't require searching police databases.

On the other hand, as as member of the Great Unpublished, I'm still blown away by George's accomplishments. And I look forward to the next book, where it looks as if Havers will star. I think she's the most interesting character in the series.

Sandra Parshall said...

Deb Crombie lived in Britain for a number of years while married to a Scotsman, and she still spends a fair amount of time there. That probably accounts for the accuracy of her characters' speech.

George has always been wordy, and like P.D. James, that tendency has grown worse with every book. Her characters seem to have been stuck in the same place for an eternity. Crombie's writing is much smoother and more emotional, while George's pedantic, overblown style keeps the reader at a distance.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Leslie, they do say "meant to," but not all of them and not all the time. George whacks us over the head with Britishisms, while Crombie uses them unobtrusively and accurately.

Did y'all see that P.D. James's Death Comes to Pemberley was nominated for Best Novel by The Strand Magazine? Do you know anyone who thought it was a good book, once they'd read it all the way through? Lifetime achievement, sure, but not that particular novel. Oh, well, as we all know, tastes differ.