People unfamiliar with the works of Elizabeth George wonder how it is that an American-born author, who resides in the United States, can be considered a “master of the English Mystery.” Her millions of fans around the world, who eagerly await each Inspector Lynley novel, know that it is because of her unique ability to capture the feel of an area—what George calls “a sense of place”—and then render it to her readers.
Her first novel, A Great Deliverance (1988), introduced readers to aristocratic Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley (Eighth earl of Asherton) and his working-class sidekick Detective Constable Barbara Havers. The novel quickly made it to the New York Times Best-Seller List and went on to earn several awards, including an Edgar nomination from Mystery Writers of America, an Anthony award, an Agatha award, and France’s Le Grand Prix de Littérature Policière.
All of her subsequent novels in the Lynley series have been best-sellers and are remarkable for their intricate plots, multi-dimensional characters and realistic but chilling explorations of the criminal mind. Throughout 20 years and 15 novels, George’s work has never grown stale or formulaic. The complex characters, moral complexity, realistic setting, and compelling dynamic between Lynley and Havers have grown stronger over time—a testament to George’s inventiveness and versatility.
From 2001 to 2007 the BBC adapted the Inspector Lynley books into a hugely successful television series starring Nathaniel Parker as Lynley and Sharon Small as Havers. In 2002, HarperCollins released a collection of George’s short stories titled I, Richard. In addition to her critically-acclaimed Inspector Lynley series, Elizabeth George has also written a guide to writing, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life (2004), and edited an anthology, A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women (2004).
Elizabeth George lives in Washington State with her husband and makes frequent trips to England, where she conducts her meticulous research for her novels. Careless in Red, Inspector Lynley’s next adventure, will be released in May by William Morrow.
AFG: I was reading Careless in Red and I thought it was a fantastic book. I love the descriptions of Cornwall—they reminded me very much of Daphne du Maurier’s.
EG: Thank you very much.
AFG: Tell our readers about the book.
EG: Well, the story takes place in Cornwall, which is of course extremely atmospheric. I chose to set it with the surfing community there as a backdrop, because it is something that we generally don’t associate with England. We tend to think of surfing as a sport that goes on in much sunnier climes than we associate with England. For me that was intriguing. I also wanted to take a look at how Lynley is progressing in his recovery from the death of his wife, which gave me a second reason for setting it in Cornwall. But the novel itself is largely about the relationships between fathers and sons, and how fathers, through their expectations and dreams, so frequently misunderstand and doom their sons.
AFG: Well it was a fantastic book; I really enjoyed it. And you’re right; people think of Cornwall as this nice, cozy place, and then you have surfing going on there!
EG: It really is amazing that surfing actually goes on along the entire coast of Great Britain. But of course, it’s practiced much differently because of the weather conditions.
AFG: So how often do you visit England for research? I know you have a flat in South Kensington.
EG: In the case of Careless in Red, I made an initial reconnaissance into Cornwall as part of a Christmas trip with my husband. We celebrated Christmas near Bristol, then drove down to Cornwall and made a loop. When I’m doing my initial reconnaissance I’m just looking to see if the place is suggestive of story to me. I am always looking for a place that I want to write about, and some places don’t interest me as much as others. So what I’m looking for first is a sense of place. And then, once I’ve established that a place is going to work for me, I generally, while I’m there on the initial trip, collect a lot of reading material. I bring that reading material home, and in reading it I establish for myself a series of particular locations that I want to examine. Then I go back to England a second time and examine all of these locations with an eye for story once again, only now what I’m doing is I’m looking for places where characters will live and operate and where elements of the story will take place.
AFG: Do you think if you lived in England, or if you were spending perhaps a year there, the atmosphere would be less inspiring? You’ve said before, that it would be difficult for you to write a book set in the United States, because you live here all the time. I know that can make it difficult to find a place that triggers an impulse in your mind to create a story.
EG: Yes, that’s exactly right. [laughing] That’s probably the most clear understanding anyone’s had about why I do it this way. When you live in a place, you become inured to the details. You don’t notice them any longer because you’re going about your daily business. And when one’s going about daily business, then one doesn’t see those things that make a place different from another place. You know, I’m going to the grocery store, so I’m not necessarily going to notice those things that are along my route. If I’m going to a restaurant, it’s likely an American restaurant, or an American version of a foreign restaurant. And it’s going to be far different from actually going to where the locals eat in a foreign location.
AFG: I know people who say, “Write what you know. If you live in Detroit, if you live in California, write about those places. Don’t set your stories somewhere you’ve never been, because even if you visit you’re not going to get as much knowledge as if you lived there.” What do you say to those people?
EG: Well, clearly it’s not true! But for some people that works. And I think the most important thing any writer can do is figure out what works for her. For me, it would not work to write about what I know, because when I began these books, what I knew was Huntington Beach, California, which I found depressing and boring. So I wasn’t interested in what I knew. I was a high school English teacher, I commuted 22 miles a day to my job in El Toro, California, and I find that whole area really disagreeable and would not be interested in writing about it. But then you have a writer like T. Jefferson Parker who sets his books there, and they’re wonderful, because he really loves southern California. I do think it’s really critical to write about a place you love, even if you’re going to look at that place with a critical eye, because at least you’re going to want to be there—to want to write about it. So for me, I can go to London and write about a really gritty area of London because I find it interesting to see, whereas I wouldn’t find a gritty area of Huntington Beach particularly interesting. Although truth to tell, the grittier the area, the easier it is to actually write about it.
Photo: Figge Photography