7 Apr 2014

Portable characters

Elizabeth George is one of my ‘re-read’ authors. To get into that elite club the author has to have written a series of novels in a genre I enjoy, in a setting I find comfortable to abandon myself to. The novels have to have layers, psychological, social and motivational. They have to be well written, grammatically and structurally intelligent, but, more important than that, they must introduce complex, three dimensional characters who appear on a regular basis so they become ‘portable’ (a word that stays with me from the last MOOC.)  This ‘portability’ I would probably have described, before I read ‘Reading a Mind,’ as the characters that are rounded, incarnated in flesh and bone with recognisable foibles and quirks; the ones that step out of the page and accompany me into my daily life often becoming friends. 

Phil Rickman does it with the Merrily Watson series, but also with the stand-alone supernatural thrillers he wrote before he happened across Merrily. The characters he created in his early novels do sometimes show up again in a new story. I like that. It creates a whole new universe for me. Merrily is his most constant protagonist now, the C of E Deliverance Minister, and single mother of Jane, her ever-questioning, defiant teenager who rebels against her mother’s relationship with God and the Church and thus speaks for readers like me who have little time for the church and no belief in a god. 

It was Elizabeth George who started this train of thought, so, back to her novels. She is American and, as far as I can tell, an afficionado of the women writers in the Golden Age of crime. She puts in place many of the ingredients of those early novelists: the elegant, well-bred and desirable old-Etonian investigator; the ways of the English aristocracy; the English country house; the English countryside. Her descriptions of the levels of English society are somewhat clichéd. Cancel that - they are VERY clichéd. For example, the DCI assigned to Lynley (Old Etonian trying to escape his onerous family duties as an Earl by having a ‘real’ career in the police force,) is drawn rather in the manner of an old family retainer. Working class, scruffy, overweight, an inveterate,  junk food eater, her socialist hackles are raised against this floppy-haired, Saville Row clad, entitled driver of a classy car, but she comes to recognise his talents, and thereafter is constantly loyal and dependable. It would not be too strong to say she worships the ground he walks on, as all good old family retainers must. 

In her early novels I felt George was labouring her use of long words (I can NEVER enjoy the use of ‘rebarbative’ except as irony.) When I re-read these I suspect her of trying to lend an air of English usage that isn’t natural to her in order to reinforce the Englishness of the experience the reader is getting. Maybe she feels she is emulating the way we English speak. Maybe she is simply trying to give literary gravitas to her work. I find it less obvious in the later novels as she gains confidence in what she has created. 

My only other grievance is her treatment of the group of people who appear regularly, and around whom the subplots form. She gives them such a terrible time, a positive snowball of disasters. It’s quite distressing. I would be happy of they had some luck for a change.

Despite my grumbles, these novels give me great pleasure. The dialogue is believable. The plot are well-constructed and intriguing; the hooks and the fins (see next entry) keep me absorbed and the wide variety of personalities involved is highly enjoyable. 

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