It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, unread, this book by mystery writer Elizabeth George. I know why it’s been sitting – a book of 723 pages requires serious commitment. It was a gift from my wife, who knew I liked the Inspector Lynley mysteries.
A couple of weeks ago, I pulled it from the shelf, and began to read, hoping that I wouldn’t like it so I could put it back on the shelf. The story of Just One Evil Act begins with a women’s roller derby in London, of all things. I wasn’t hooked from the first page; the first few pages are about a potential new love interest for Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, an earl of the realm who happens to work for Scotland Yard. His wife Helen had been rather senselessly killed in a previous novel (and I still don’t think I’ve forgiven the author for that).
By page 15, however, when Lynley finally returns a frantic phone call from his erstwhile Scotland Yard partner Sergeant Barbara Havers, I’m fully pulled into the story, and ready to tackle another 708 pages.
Barbara’s good friend and neighbor Taymullah Azhar is desperate – his daughter Hadiyyah has been taken – kidnapped – by her mother Angelina. Azhar had returned from work at a London university microbiology lab to find his daughter and her mother gone, Hadiyyah’s room stripped clean. Azhar had never married Angelina; in fact, he had left his wife and family to live with her. His daughter is his world and his family, and now she’s disappeared.
This begins a story that moves constantly between London and Lucca, Italy; between the police investigations in both countries; between private detectives in both countries; and between a multitude of related side stories and a relatively large cast of characters. It is a feat to pull all of this off in one coherent mystery, but George does it, and does it incredibly well. It would have been an easy book to lose the reader’s way in, but it never happens; it’s that well-written of a story.
|Elizabeth George (and friend)|
The mother’s kidnapping of Hadiyyah goes somewhat awry when the girl is really kidnapped in one of Lucca’s open-air markets; the strong passions on all sides eventually results in a murder. The Italian policeman Salvatore LoBianco, a somewhat Italian counterpoint to Lynley, manages to continue a competent investigation in spite of an ogre of a boss who’s more concerned with the political than the criminal. Their characters and relationship is a good example of how well George creates and develops characters.
What makes the story even more compelling is watching Barbara Havers spin herself into a deeper and deeper hole, almost determined to break every written and unwritten rule in helping Azhar. She leaks to a tabloid reporter; she hides what she’s doing; she lies, even to Lynley. You read with increasing anxiety as her career is headed for what looks to be the inevitable crackup.
Any other who can keep a reader going for more than 700 pages knows how to tell a good story. Just One Evil Act is just possibly Elizabeth George’s best mystery novel to date, and that should be taken as a high compliment.
Photograph of Lucca, Italy, via the European Network for Accessible Tourism.