Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth George’

Inspector Luann returns

May 17, 2018

I’ve just read Elizabeth George’s latest, The Punishment She Deserves. This time I didn’t wait my turn to get it from the library but actually bought the book, brand-new, with dust jacket and all. And I noticed that on that dust jacket, above a misty photograph of Ludlow (England), both the author’s name and the title appear in all lower case. But of course no one will refer to the novelist as “elizabeth george.” And l still don’t understand why the writer who calls herself Bell Hooks and also chooses the all-lower-case format for her title pages is almost universally cited as “bell hooks,” as though referring to some devices from which bells are hung. Esthetic choices of title-page typography do not, in my opinion, trump the rules of English, one of which is that in ordinary writing personal names are capitalized.

But I digress.

I managed to go through the book’s almost 700 pages in a few days. The plot is gripping, with several subplots that seem unconnected at first but finally come together logically.

There are, of course the usual recurring characters: DI Thomas Lynley, DS Barbara Havers, DCS Isabelle Ardery, and the others. Elizabeth George clings to the old naming convention, where women are referred to by first name and men by surname (as I have noted, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin — but not Peter Robinson — have overcome it). And, as usual, the characters’ histories build upon previous novels, but in what I have called Luann time: the events of the preceding novel, published three years earlier, are described as having happened “last year.” Havers is still in her thirties (a character in her late forties is described as having “more than ten years on her”) and Lynley at least appears to be no more than forty: he is seen as “twenty years older” than an eighteen-year-old. (The series, mind you, began in 1988.)

In the customary afterword, George acknowledges her editor, who “set me straight when I went off track in British English.” Not enough, I’m afraid.

I have already commented on George’s pet Americanism, “run interference” (a term taken from American football); it appears twice in this book. A few others crop up: “GPS” for “satnav”; “pressured” for “pressurised”; “Indian” (based on appearance) for “Asian”; and George’s tendency to confuse “due” and “do”: she once wrote “undo” for “undue,” while this time its “make due” for “make do.”

Then there is George’s penchant for eye dialect, intended somehow to reproduce the speech of those who are not toffs like Thomas Lynley and who are quoted, for example, as saying “su’prise”; but of course no English person (except in the West Country) pronounces the first R in surprise; nor would anyone pronounce the phrase problems are as anything like “problems’re”; but there you are.

I also find it jarring to read British spelling with American punctuation, but that’s another matter.

So much for ling-crit. A bigger problem, for me, is the superficiality of Elizabeth George’s acquaintance with British culture. Referring to Thomas Cromwell when Oliver is meant is a small example.

The novel takes place in the small but historic town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, as well as elsewhere in the county and in the neighboring counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire — the territory served by the West Mercia Police, which figures prominently in the action. The area, including its topography and architecture, is described in vivid detail that adds color to the narrative. It’s clear that George explored the places she describes; she also gathered inside information by interviewing the Chief Constable of the WMP, the mayor of Ludlow (who is — though she doesn’t say so — not an executive mayor but merely the chairman of the town council, a body with very limited authority), and the chairman of the gliding club to which three of her characters belong.

One institution that plays a large part in the story, is a college, which George calls West Mercia College (like the police), but whose description as regards location and buildings matches the actual college located in Ludlow, Ludlow College. Several of the principal characters are students at the college; they are 18 or 19 years old, and appear to be in their first year of studies. They also (with one exception) are heavily involved with drinking and sex.

In other words, the college is supposed to strike American readers as something like what they think of as a college. But the reality is different. (No wonder George renamed the college, and did not interview its head.)

Ludlow College is, in fact, a sixth-form college, a school corresponding chronologically (though not academically) to the 11th and 12th grades of American high schools; students who are 18 will actually be finishing the second of its two years (known as lower and upper sixth).

I am not sure that Elizabeth George knows the concept of sixth form, since she seems to confuse the British form with the American grade. In one place, Isabelle Ardery thinks of the children playing in a schoolyard as being in third form, and thus close in age to her own children, who are nine. In another, a twelve-year-old is asked if she remembers her fourth-form teacher.

As a matter of fact, “form” is used in England to denote grade in secondary school, which begins at age eleven; thus third and fourth form correspond to ages thirteen and fourteen, respectively (they are also called year 8 and year 9), and sixth form accordingly begins at age 16.

Why does Elizabeth George’s British editor let her get away with these things? I don’t know, but in a way I’m grateful. For I enjoy reading her books, but then I get the additional enjoyment of quibbling about the solecisms.




Crime report

January 4, 2018

About a year and a half ago I wrote about my favorite series (plural) of detective novels, and I included the Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke with the ones I thought were finished (the last one having been Light of the World, in 2013). I am happy to report that I was wrong. I just learned that a new novel in the series — titled, of all things, Robicheaux — has just been published. I rushed to put a hold on it at my library, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

Meanwhile, over the last couple of months I have caught up with the latest Rebus by Ian Rankin (Rather Be the Devil) and the latest Bosch by Michael Connelly (Two Kinds of Trush), as well as what seems to be the onset of a new series by Connelly, featuring a woman detective, Renée Ballard (The Late Show) and written entirely from her point of view (in free indirect style). In addition I read the latest by Tana French (The Trespasser), featuring two detectives carried over from her previous book (The Secret Place)  but written entirely from the point of view (in first-person narration) of the female partner, Antoinette Conway.

Differences in narrative style aside, I was struck by some of the similarities between the latter two novels. In addition to having French first names, both detectives are tall, hard-boiled, rough-talking single women in their thirties; both work the night shift with male partners, are treated unsympathetically (or seem to be) by the other men on their squads, and venture outside their working hours in order to pursue their cases. In both cases the murderer is himself a detective, discovered (by good detective work and a ruse involving a senior detective) after another detective had been a suspect.

The Trespasser came out some nine months before The Late Show. Could the former have inspired the latter?

I have long believed that John Rebus was, in some way, an inspiration for Harry Bosch. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, came out in 1987; the first Bosch, The Black Echo, in 1992. Both men are war veterans (Rebus in Northern Ireland, Bosch in Vietnam) and around forty when the series begin. Both are mavericks who often get in trouble with their superiors and get denied promotion or demoted. Both have unsteady relationships with women, each being married once with a resulting daughter (though the circumstances are vastly different). Both work well with women partners. Both are forced to retire but continue working cases voluntarily. Both series abound with local color of Edinburgh and Los Angeles, respectively.

And in both of the recent novels the women detectives are, at last, referred to by their last names, just like the men, unlike, say, Peter Robinson’s (Alan) Banks and Annie (Cabbot) or Elizabeth George’s (Thomas)  Lynley and Barbara (Havers).

The Inspector Luann Mysteries

June 22, 2016

My favorite daily comic strip is Luann, by Greg Evans. It is, in fact, the only daily comic strip I read, now that Doonesbury is in reruns. I have been following it for thirty years, during which Luann DeGroot has gone from being an eighth-grader to a college freshman.

Yes, thirty-odd years of real time for about five years of comic-strip time. That is normal, of course, when we consider that a typical narrative daily strip of four panels may contain barely a minute of dialogue, and a single scene may take a week or more. But references to what happens outside the world of the strip’s characters — political events, technological changes — are usually kept contemporary so as to maintain relevance, so that the characters cannot age in real time, but in a sort of slowed-down time which I will call Luann time.

I am also a serial murder… uh,  a serial reader of murder mysteries; specifically, mystery novels written in series featuring a lead detective and a floating cast of associated characters. Since a novel is not limited by four daily panels, these characters do age in real time, and we get to follow them through promotions and suspensions; marriages, parenthood and divorces; relationships with colleagues, friends and lovers; and reactions to actual events. It can usually be assumed that in such a series the action takes place within a year or so before the novel’s publication.

The authors that I have followed steadily, though not always from the beginning, have been P. D. James (the novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh), Ruth Rendell (Reginald Wexford), Colin Dexter (Morse), Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander), James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux) — all of these now finished — and, still soldiering on, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch.

Until recently I would have included Elizabeth George’s series featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers with this group. As George herself has written, she prefers series that “allow[…]  the characters to grow, change, develop, and move through time.” Only, as I have just lately realized, the time is not real time but Luann time.

The realization came to me as I was reading her latest novel, A Banquet of Consequences (2015). The first “aha!” moment was when I read about Barbara Havers taking part in a speed-dating exercise that is segregated into age groups, and she — honestly — sits among those in their thirties. Later, Lynley himself is judged (by an older woman) as being in his thirties. Wait a minute, I said to myself, these characters have been around for more than 25 years! What’s going on?

Then there were two specific references that reinforced the impression of elastic time. One was to an episode of collaboration with Cambridgeshire Constabulary said to have taken place “a few years ago,” but the reference is to For the Sake of Elena, published in 1993. The other is to Lynley’s having lost his wife “eighteen months before”; this loss (a senseless murder) happened in With No One as Witness (2005).

What is Elizabeth George’s time frame, then? Let’s begin, not at the beginning, but with Playing for the Ashes (1994). This a pivotal novel in the series in several respects: it’s where Barbara first meets her neighbor Taymullah Azhar and his eight-year-old daughter Hadiyyah, who become her steady friends; it’s were Isabelle Ardery makes her first appearance, as a detective inspector with what EG calls the Maidstone Constabulary (actually the Kent County Constabulary, soon to become the Kent Police), before she is (in later novels) transferred to the Met and promoted several times to eventually become Lynley’s boss; and it’s where, at the novel’s end, Helen Clyde agrees to marry Lynley. In this novel one of the central characters tells us that she was born in 1962, and we also learn that she is thirty-two. Ergo, the novel clearly takes place in the year of publication, and we are still in real time.

But in Deception On His Mind (1997) Hadiyyah is still eight, while in Just One Evil Act (2013) she is… nine. It seems, then, that Luann time began for Elizabeth George around 1995.

It could, of course, be that in all the novels after 1994 the action takes place in the 1990s (I don’t recall any years being actually numbered). But this is belied by the presence of the latest technology (laptops, memory sticks, smartphones) in them.

I still like Elizabeth George. She is still brilliant at concocting convoluted plots that, somehow, make sense at the end, and in which it’s very hard to suspect the eventual culprit almost till the end. But from now on I will have to read her novels more in the way that I read Luann, divorced from actual time consideration, than the way I read my other favorite detective series.


Spanish by Hill et al.

October 16, 2015

A few years ago I wrote about some linguistic troubles that the mystery writer Elizabeth George had when she tried to make one of her characters Spanish-speaking. It struck me as telling that, among the many grateful acknowledgments appended to her novel, there was not one addressed to anyone who might have helped her with her Spanish.

I have since found that Elizabeth George is, in this regard, far from alone among English-language mystery writers. It is especially striking that Tony Hillerman and Michael Connelly, who have written respectively about New Mexico and Southern California — both places rife with Hispanic people, culture and history — have also been cavalier to the point of ludicrousness when it comes to Spanish. I meant to call attention to some of the blunders at the time I read the books, but somehow didn’t get around to it.

I will make up for it with Reginald Hill, the (English) author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. His novel The Stranger House is a mystery that involve detective work, but it is not crime investigation by actual CID detectives. Rather, it’s about personal quests by a disparate pair of graduate students: an Australian young woman doing mathematics and a Spanish young man doing history.

Early in the book the young man’s name is given as Miguel Elkington Madero. Except that his father was Miguel Madero, while his mother is an Englishwoman named Christine Elkington. He should, therefore — following Spanish and not English naming customs — be Miguel Madero Elkington. While a recent law allows some freedom in the order of surnames, Miguel was born in the late 1970s, so that Hill’s version of the name is an impossibility.

Another linguistic impossibility is Miguel’s nickname, which is given (also early on) as Mig. Spanish words do not end in -g, except English borrowings ending in -ing (such as párking) which is pronounced /in/ or /iŋ/. The ‘hard G’ sound implied by Miguel’s self-introduction cannot occur in Spanish.

Further on in the book there are at least three howlers. Miguel gives himself a more formal introduction as Miguel Ramos Elkington Madero. What in the world is a third surname doing there? Perhaps Hill thinks that a surname can, as in English, be used as a second given name. While some Spanish-American countries allow plenty of latitude in assigning given names, Spain does not, and Ramos is not a possibility.

In a manuscript supposedly written in Spanish, the line ‘Father, forgive me’ is written as Padre me perdona, which means ‘Father forgives me.’ The correct Spanish is, of course, Padre, perdóname.

And Christine Elkington is said to be known in Spain as Donna (not Doña) Cristina.

In his author’s note Hill thanks two Australian editors for helping him get things “right about matters Australian.” There is nothing equivalent about “matters Spanish.” And it shows.



Italian, by George?

January 4, 2014

Happy new year, dear readers, and welcome to the third installment (or at least the first part of it) of my “by George” series, following the linguistic misadventures of the novelist Elizabeth George. In the first installment I detailed her lapses in reproducing British English, while in the second I discussed the mess she made trying to represent Spanish names.

Elizabeth George’s latest novel, Just One Evil Act, has just appeared, and the reviews I have read have been underwhelming, even from self-acknowledged long-time fans like Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle. Two oft-mentioned complaints are that book is overlong (700+ pages in hardcover) and that it contains a great deal of untranslated Italian dialogue.

Because of the first complaint I don’t feel too eager to read the book just yet. But the second one makes me want to, at least, browse through it. I know Italian — not as well as British English and Spanish, but well enough (I think) to be able to tell whether the dialogue is of the kind that would actually be spoken by Italians, or the kind that might be concocted from a crash course (perhaps with the help of a duly acknowledged but not necessarily helpful editor). When I’ve had a chance to look at the book, I will post (I promise) the second part of this installment.


March 27, 2012

On reviewing my latest post I noticed two things that had not occurred to me as I was writing it.

One was that whenever I did not refer to Elizabeth George by her full lname (or, at least, her author name) I called her Ms. George. On the other hand, when I wrote about Ian Rankin, I called him Rankin. I evidently have not yet absorbed the by-now-not-so-new convention of referring to women simply by their surnames. It is, of course, a journalistic convention, not a novelistic one: George herself (there, I did it!) refers to Thomas Lynley as Lynley, but to Barbara Havers as Barbara. And its common use in journalism (outside the New York Times, which maintains Mr. and Ms.) can be confusing, as when in an article about Hillary Clinton, in which there may be references to her husband, she is called simply Clinton.

I also wrote that Elizabeth George “showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture,” letting it go at that, without citing examples. An example came my way the next day, as I was reading Ruth Rendell’s The Vault. Here a key element of the plot is the use of the French word punaise as a mnemonic for a person’s PIN, since punaise supposedly means ‘pin.’ But the primary meaning (that is, the first meaning that will come to a French person’s mind) of punaise is ‘bug’ (specifically ‘bedbug’); a secondary meaning is ‘pin’ of the kind that in Britain is known as drawing pin, in America thumbtack, but the general word for ‘pin’ is épingle. And just before this book I had read Rendell’s Portobello, one of whose characters has a mother who is a Muslim from Assam and whose language is not Assamese or Bengali or Sylheti but Hindi, a language practically unknown in Assam (see Wikipedia).

Even supposedly cosmopolitan, world-traveling British writers, like E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham or John le Carré, often betray in their writings the likelihood that they spend most of their time abroad chatting with other Brits. Le Carré, for example, worked as a diplomat in Germany, and yet his knowledge of German language and culture shows considerable lapses. And George Orwell, who wrote Homage to Catalonia, didn’t know Catalan.

American writers, by and large, have not exhibited these symptoms. Hispanic culture, for example, has been portrayed by some of our greatest writers, from Washington Irving and Helen Hunt Jackson to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder and Katherine Anne Porter, and in reading their works one feels that their knowledge of the culture, or at least the subcultures they wrote about, is thorough.

An exception comes to mind in Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig, where the digressions on Spanish and Latin American culture and history are a sorry mess, surprising from someone who spent most of his life in the half-Hispanic city of Albuquerque, and enough to almost (but not quite) make me doubt the authenticity of his Navajo lore.

Elizabeth George spent most of her life in California, another place with a large Hispanic population, so I would expect her (meticulous researcher that she is, to gather from her forewords and afterwords) to know better. My guess is that she deliberately botched the Spanish in order to seem more British.

Spanish, by George

March 21, 2012

Last year I published a post, titled English, by George, about some lapses in Elizabeth George’s otherwise highly successful endeavor (endeavour, as she would put it) to write her set-in-Britain Inspector Lynley mysteries as if she were herself English. Those lapses, some of which I listed in the cited post, I can only call Americanisms.

I have just finished Elizabeth George’s last Lynley novel, Believing the Lie, and I can report that, in a fast but not sloppy reading of its 600+ pages, not one such Americanism jumped out at me. Instead, she showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture.

Ms. George seems to have fine a fine ear for the varieties of language spoken by indigenous English folk of different classes and regions. Her occasional Scottish characters, on the other had, speak a kind of stereotypical Scots that one rarely hears in Scotland. (She makes other mistakes about Scotland, for example supposing — in This Body of Death — that a crime committed in the Highlands would be investigated by the Glasgow-based Strathclyde Police rather than the Northern Constabulary.) For her West Indian characters she writes a kind of eye dialect that doesn’t really reflect an accent, only that it’s somehow different.

In the new novel, one of the dozen or so central characters (yes!) is an Argentinean woman named Alatea Vasquez y del Torres. It’s the kind of name one would expect in a second-rate comedy skit making fun of Spanish names, not in a serious novel.

Let me discuss the various parts of the name. To begin with, Del Torres is grammatically impossible as a Spanish name, since the contraction del is singular masculine, while Torres is plural feminine. De la Torre is a standard Spanish surname, as is simply Torres, and De las Torres is possible, but not what Ms. George chose. (Note: the initial d is capitalized when the name stands by itself, but not when it immediately follows another part of the full name.) A Web search for Del Torres turns up Americans with Del and Torres as first and last names, respectively, and a supposed place in Costa Rica called Bajos del Torres which, on further inspection, turns out to be Bajos de Torres (a neighborhood in the Uruca District of San José). And, of course there are also tracts in Florida with Del Torres as part of the name, just like Seinfeld‘s Del Boca Vista.

Now, the conjunction y (‘and’) was once commonly used between the first (paternal) and the second (maternal) surname in Spanish, but is now largely obsolete; for example, the son of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset went by José Ortega Spottorno. The y is sometimes inserted when it helps to avoid confusion, as, for example, when the first surname has the same form as a possible forename. Thus, if the famous physiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal had not used y, he might have been taken for someone with Santiago Ramón as his given names; similarly for Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, José María Gabriel y Galán, and others.

But, most importantly, most Hispanics don’t present themselves with their double surnames outside of official circumstances, and Argentineans least of all, perhaps because a great many of them are of non-Spanish descent. I have known a good many Argentineans in person, and many more by reputation. and only one person I knew used the double name: his name was Carlos García, and his desire to be distinguished from the thousands of other Carlos Garcías was understandable. If you look at Wikipedia’s long list of famous Argentineans, you will find that a bare handful have two surnames listed, and only one of them (Vicente López y Planes, 1785–1856) used y.

There is another factor to consider: there is a certain mystery about the character named Alatea Vasquez y del Torres, and I have to say, without revealing too much of the plot, that a change of identity is involved. It seems very unlikely that such a character, on leaving Latin America, would keep the full official Spanish version of her name, even if she had used it before, which is also unlikely. Of course the fact that she did so makes it possible for Barbara Havers (with Winston Nkata’s help) to trace Alatea’s background on the Internet, with the result that her parents are found to be Esteban Vega y de Vasquez and Dominga Padilla y del Torres de Vasquez. If those (with some corrections) were in fact the parents’ names, then Alatea would be Vega Padilla, not Vasquez y del Torres, and her mother’s name would end in de Vega, not de Vasquez. (Argentineans have clung, more than others, to the tradition of appending a man’s paternal surname, preceded by de, to his wife’s name; witness Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.)

As I said, all this would be fine in a comedy skit. As would be the name of Alatea’s hometown, Santa Maria de la Cruz, de los Angeles, y de los Santos. (Never mind that Spanish doesn’t use the serial comma, except to prevent ambiguity.) But not in a would-be realistic novel.

And then there is the matter of Alatea’s English. While we are told at the outset that she has a strong accent, and on at least one occasion that she can’t come up with the English word for something (though we are not told what the Spanish word might be), there is no indication of any Spanish influence in either the direct dialogue in which she participates, or in her thoughts as given in indirect speech. No eye dialect, no how do you say it in English, no grammatical lapses. The detectives’ attempts to contact her family show that no one in Santa Maria etc. speaks English, and Alatea seems to have had no higher eductaion, with her sojourn in anglophone territory (first Utah, then England) being relatively brief. So how, then, did she acquire the impeccable English of Elizabeth George’s upper-class characters?

It’s an added mystery, with no solution provided.

English, by George

July 12, 2011

In a previous post I noted the tendency of American publishers to Americanize the English of British mystery writers, specifically Ian Rankin. Oddly enough, this isn’t done with the English of Elizabeth George. Only the punctuation is American: double quotes where a British press would have single ones (‘inverted commas’), and periods and commas inside the quotes regardless of logic. But the spelling (kerb, neighbour, gaol) and vocabulary (torch, lorry, mobile) remain consistently British, and the many turns of phrase that distinguish British from North American English bear witness to Elizabeth George’s mastery of her chosen idiom.

For it is chosen: Elizabeth George is American, and the American editions of her books are in fact the original editions. Reading her is, then, like listening to a virtuoso performance. But any virtuoso will hit an occasional wrong note, and every so often one finds a lapse that will make one wince.

The most common  is her fondness for the verb phrase (to) run interference for (someone); I’ve found in at least three of her books, in the sense of providing support or cover. I wonder if Elizabeth George knows that this is a blatant Americanism (the OED labels it as orig. and chiefly U.S.), originating in American football; nowadays it’s mainly used metaphorically, while the literal sense is covered by blocking. According to the prominent British linguist Geoff Pullum (in a private communication to me), this phrase has not yet entered British English.

In her novel A Traitor to Memory, a violinist muses about the fact that his teacher never became a concertmaster. But the use of concertmaster to designate the leading violinist of an orchestra in the United Kingdom is very recent; the traditional, and still predominant, term, is Leader. In a post dated 1999 in a BBC online forum on the subject, a British musician writes, “Every orchestra I’ve played in the first violinist has been billed as the Leader.” It is only from a post dated 2006 that we learn, “Leader is a British term, Concertmaster is international but is gradually catching on here.” According to a recent posting by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, “The SCO is seeking a new Leader (Concertmaster).” Butl A Traitor to Memory was published in 2001, and it seems unlikely that an English musician at the time covered by the novel would have thought of a concertmaster rather than a leader.

And then there is a curious typo in With No One as Witness: “undo reverence” instead of “undue reverence.” A typo, yes, but a distinctly North American one. In all the varieties of British English that I know of, do and due are not homophones, and such a typo would be highly improbable for someone whose native pronunciation has the distinction.

Elizabeth George is very gracious in extending profuse thanks to the “various individuals both in the United States and in England” who have helped produce her wonderful books. But none of them seem to have the linguistic skill needed to prevent shibboleths.