by Zack Smith
For those who know Elizabeth George only from her Inspector Lynley novels or the BBC adaptations that air on PBS, you might be in for a shock when you see her at her upcoming appearances at McIntyre’s Fine Books and at Quail Ridge Books & Music. Though the novels are set in England and feature an extensive use of British culture and society, George herself is American born and raised, and has earned widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for her tales of the noble-born Lynley and his working-class partner Havers.
As George prepared for the release of the 18th book in the series, Just One Evil Act (Dutton Adult, $29.95) which came out Oct. 15, we called her up to talk about her character, the tradition of British mysteries, and more.
INDY Week: The first Lynley book came out in 1988. Did you imagine back then that you’d still be telling stories with the characters 25 years later?
Elizabeth George: Back then, and even today, I don’t tend to project into the future. What I’ve always done is devote my concentration to the current book I’m working on. But I will say it’s been a terrific ride and a wonderful opportunity through this series to not only support myself as a writer, but to get to meet people and go places I’d have never had the chance to encounter otherwise.
There’s a huge following for the books from the TV series, though there are some differences from the books. What do you make of this following?
The BBC has reduced stories down to the crimes themselves and their solutions—the novels are not just crime novels but character novels, focusing on not just the people investigating the crimes but those whose lives are affected by them. But I’ve enjoyed the productions and particularly the performances of the actors playing Lynley and Havers. What was missing for me was that greater experience that the reader can have, or the viewer could have had.
That said, they did a fairly good job with the crimes, and the performances of Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small as Lynley and Havers were excellent. But if you read the books, you get exposed to many, many characters and many walks of life in Great Britain.
Mystery/crime, more than almost any other genre, really has that large number of continuing series and continuing characters. Why do you feel that’s the case?
The tradition of the crime story and the mystery novel, the whole tradition of the consulting detective and the crime story, was started by Edgar Allan Poe with C. Auguste Dupin, the continuing character. And that might be why that format has been followed.
If you’re going to write about crime, and criminals, and what goes into criminal investigations, it might be more difficult to do it if you have to re-create the wheel every time with new characters. Now, some writers do this, and do it brilliantly. But I enjoy reading series characters, because of that wonderful moment when you get to see that series character one more time, and I wanted to create that experience for the reader.
Additionally, when you have a series character, you have the opportunity to explore that character over a period of his life more fully than if you didn’t have a series character, and that appealed to me as well.
I get the sense from other interviews with you that you plan each book individually, but how do you plan out the arcs for the characters as you continue writing the series?
So when I write a story, I know what crime I’ll be exploring; then I’ll know which investigator I’ll be featuring—Lynley and Havers, Lynley solo, Havers solo, and so on. And then I’ll go on from there.
It sounds like you have a sense of how this could all end at some point.
Oh yes, I’ve had a pretty good idea of that for a while—where each character is going, where the story will take them. But I won’t get there for a while.
My parents, who are addicted to the TV version of Lynley, would kill me if I didn’t ask you if there were any plans for more episodes.
Well, I have spoken to the actor who played Lynley, and have met with him in London, because he is very interested in seeing if any more of the Lynley shows can be made. But of course this is an enormously difficult type of endeavor to launch, and there are huge expenses involved. But he has been working with the world arm of the BBC to help make this happen.
Because the Lynley DVDs have been hugely successful around the world, and the show has been shown on PBS, the BBC is interested in making more shows if they money can be gotten together. But I really don’t know where things stand at this point.
And the $64,000 question: How annoying has it been for people to go, “Oh! You’re not British?” over and over?
I find that people think that I’m British because my books are set in Great Britain, but I find it unusual. I’m certainly not the first person of one nationality to set books in a different nation and in a different culture. So I don’t think it should come as a total surprise to people, but it sometimes does.
In a way, I’m happy about it—I labor over the books to make sure the details of Great Britain are right, even though I’ve never lived in Great Britain. I do sometimes urge people to take a look at my website, where the most frequently asked questions are there and are answered.
I can’t even speak a British accent. I can think in one, and can speak in some of the cadence if I’ve been in Great Britain for a number of weeks, but I can never get it quite right.
Well, the books are uniquely British—not just in that they’re set there, but many aspects of British society are embedded in the characters, and help drive the plots.
Well, I do like the books to as much as possible reflect not only England as it is, but the changing face of England as it is altered over time. That’s why I’ve looked at some of the issues that are contemporaneous in Britain, such as racism and intermarriage and arranged marriage, and of course of class—it was a deliberate choice on my part to make Lynley and Havers part of two distinctly different classes, so I could explore issues in Britain that were once very much on the surface, and today, I think, play out much more surreptitiously than they once did.
And that might be part of why the books are popular—those class issues are present all over the world, especially in America, and when you see them filtered through the light of a different culture, there can be something that feels very allegorical about that.
Well, there are very interesting things about England that don’t exist in the United States that make the place very fascinating for me. For example, in the United States, we tend to celebrate success, and don’t necessarily look at where somebody came from as much as we look at what the person’s achieved.
Whereas in England, it’s the complete opposite. They don’t celebrate success; they derive success, and their concentration is almost entirely on where someone came from. They’re not sure what to make right now of the Middleton family, as they are perhaps the greatest case of by the bootstraps in British history. They adore Kate Middleton, but you’d be hard-pressed to see any article about the Duchess of Cambridge that doesn’t talk about her roots.
In America, we might talk out about how you can start out the child of a single mother whose father abandoned the family and wind up President of the United States. That to us is seen as one of the beauties of living in the United States. In England, though, that would certainly not be spoken of in any awe-struck fashion.
Elizabeth George appears at the Fearrington Barn for McIntyre's Fine Books at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20, and at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21, for a signing-line ticket event. For more information, visit www.fearrington.com and www.quailridgebooks.com.