Original sin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am

Elizabeth George has never paid much heed to literary critics. Hailed as a master of the crime genre, she remains oblivious to the accolades for her 23 books, including five story collections and a non-fiction book on writing. She once said she made a point of remembering that 'critics are interested in their own careers, and I, as a writer, am merely the fodder for a critic's career.'

What matters to this diminutive, no-nonsense creator of the best-selling Inspector Lynley series, is the relationship between herself, her books and her readers.

Give her half a chance and this former award-winning English teacher turned author will deliver a small homily on the need for all writers, no matter their chosen genre, 'to forge some kind of bond with the readers, to form what John Steinbeck calls the trinity, so you have the book, the reader and writer bound together'.

George has forged such a bond with her readers that each of her Inspector Lynley novels has sold a million copies and has been translated into 20 languages.

An ongoing BBC/PBS series based on her series about aristocratic New Scotland Yard Detective Lynley and his dowdy, working class police partner Barbara Havers, has ensured the US-born author a devoted following in Britain, where the series garnered millions of viewers.

But reader loyalty only goes part of the way to explaining why it is that when George toured the US last month to promote her new and 14th Lynley mystery, Careless in Red, she found herself forced to address lingering reader rage over the murder of Lynley's wife in her 2005 novel With No One As Witness.

'Their anger surprised me,' says George who, in 2006, penned a critically acclaimed, if unfortunately titled, novel about the events leading up to the murder, What Came Before He Shot Her. 'But I think what they were reacting to was that they felt something, and largely the reading experience these days doesn't ask readers to feel very much.'

She spent the better part of last month addressing her US fans, defusing their anger by spelling out the complex demands of her craft, the need to open up a story, not close it down. In fact, she astonished many by divulging that she'd planned to kill off Lynley's wife some six years previously.

But the explosive reader reaction to a three-year-old novel was a writer's dream, she says, 'because that was exactly what I wanted, the strong reaction. That's the purpose of fiction. Many books tend to be read for the purposes of diversion only. The way I have always seen fiction is that its purpose is to ask people to feel. So it's an interesting phenomenon to be the writer in this kind of situation.'

Not that reader ire has prevented Careless in Red from entering the New York Times best-seller list. In many ways this psychologically complex novel typifies the high level of attention to character and to place that sets George apart from many in the crime genre.

Set in Cornwall, against the backdrop of Britain's surfing community, it plunges the reader into a vast and complex story of relationships and subplots when Lynley, walking the Cornish coastal path in a fog of grief, discovers the body of a young rock climber.

From the outset, explains George, 'I made a commitment to character and to place. I wanted to have that kind of situation where the characters did grow, change and develop. Because as a reader I've never much cared for books in which your continuing characters are always the same.'

It was her fascination with character, coupled with a desire to approach the crime novel differently, that led her to pen What Became Before He Shot Her, which was lauded by many critics for transcending the crime genre and condemned by others for daring to do so.

'I'm sure that it was disturbing to some people not to have the ... same approach to crime writing as they're used to,' she says, chuckling. 'But I never wanted to write the same novel twice. With some writers it seems like they are churning out the same novel over and over again, just changing the names to protect the innocent as it were, and I never wanted to do that. I never wanted to have this sort of cookie-cutter approach to creating a crime novel.'

George, 59, first became interested in human psychopathology at the age of seven, when she used to scour the newspapers for true crime stories.

She penned her first novel at the age of 12 and collected rejection slips on two books before getting published in 1988. Even then it was only thanks to her infatuation with the British aristocracy's penchant for commas after their names that her now famous fictional detective, Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, found his way into the pages of her 1988 breakout novel A Great Deliverance.

A best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, it won her the Anthony Award, the Agatha Award and France's Le Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, as well as a substantial two-book contract.

'I never really expected to get published and there was no way I was going to have fun writing about characters exactly like myself,' she says. 'I was a high school English teacher and it's not really very interesting to write about, and I wanted to create characters I could have fun with.'

She wanted to explore every nook and cranny in Britain and to portray its changing face. 'So many people around the world have this image of Britain that comes to them via the BBC, but I like to look at British life as it really is.

'From the very first, my novels have always dealt with weighty topics - incest, betrayal of country, pornography, schoolyard bullying, illegitimate birth, arranged marriage, drug use, prostitution, sadomasochism, etc.

'There is no point to writing at all, I believe, if my novels do not make an attempt to portray the world is it actually is.'

So deftly does George gauge the British pulse in her novels, the revelation she is American still draws an incredulous response from many readers which, after two decades, clearly irritates George. She is the first American crime writer to have her books adapted by the BBC. Her stock response is: 'It worked well enough for Henry James.'

Born in Ohio, and raised in California, George has never considered setting her novels anywhere but in Britain, having fallen in love with all things British in 1966, while studying Shakespeare at a summer school. She knows when a particular setting will work for a novel, 'because I can feel the sense of excitement coming from me. Its very visceral, its not intellectual at all.'

She keeps a flat in London where she spends large chunks of each year researching her novels, but writes from her home near Seattle. Almost as famous for her obsession with the process and craft of writing as she is for the books themselves, George rises at 5am to write five pages a day. She says she writes as 'a way of keeping the crazies at bay. If I don't stay creative I very quickly become depressed.'

Years ago she devised a process that would appease her need for organisation and make the actual writing of the book less frightening. She wrote about it in her popular 2004 non-fiction, Write Away, and is a passionate believer in the craft of writing: 'Craft is there to rescue you when art fails.'

Even though she is well into writing her 23rd novel and 15th Lynley mystery, she cheerily a dmits that self-doubt stalks her every day. 'If you are going to try and write a different novel every single time, of course it only gets scarier and scarier. As Woody Allen once said, 'When you start writing you don't know if you have a book or a paragraph'.'