Frances Fyfield on the Californian who went to Clacton; Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99
Saturday 02 August 1997
Setting novels outside one's native country is hardly unusual, but there is an extra hazard when writing in a common language. Write in English about Italy, and we would not notice linguistic errors. Write in English about England, and we certainly do. Inevitably, George has made some awful and jarring mistakes in the past - forgiven or ignored by her international fans.
Others find such inventions as a double-barrelled, aristocratic detective with a passing resemblance to Lord Peter Wimsey so unbelievable in the Nineties that everything else pales into unbelievability, despite George's fine writing and sensitive handling of relationships. It may be that the slightly other-worldly nature of her novels - as well as their occasional off-centre understanding of the vernacular - allow them to be enjoyed as fantasies divorced from all that wearing social realism.
But social realism is what George is after. In this novel, she abandons the Chelsea upper classes (where anachronisms are allowed) and takes her plot to a decaying seaside town on the Essex coast, where the murder of a Muslim man has ignited a social tinderbox. Her lower-class character, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, takes over. Whatever one thinks about a Californian tackling our social problems, the attempt is certainly brave.
George always does extensive and painstaking research; and, after all, does any non-Muslim know much more about the workings of a Muslim community under siege than she does? Probably not.
Somehow, unease still lurks, as it does when one reads a translation. Her venue is Walton-on-the-Naze, mixed with Harwich and Clacton (the map on the inside cover makes it clear that you need a code to the characters and their various establishments). Hatham Quereshi has been killed. The brother of his fiancee screams racial murder, and police pressure is intense. The Malik family are proud of their relationship with neighbours, but no one - not even their English friends - really knows how they live. Clever but clumsy, DS Havers intercedes to assist her chic and feminist colleague in unravelling the mystery of the death and the dreadful conspiracy behind it.
George is excellent, if ponderous, at slowly unfolding plot and atmosphere. She does put you right inside the stifling Malik household and the stifling police station; she does take you closer to the solution with slow, but steady footsteps. But I doubt if DS Havers would be seen dead wearing bandages over bruises, or step out of a Mini to announce a long-defunct "I'm from Scotland Yard" status. Police officers get lynched for less, even in Essex.
No novel has to be totally precise, but if it aims at realism, details matter. The irritations and superfluities do not prevent this being a rich and provocative page-turner, but the invitation is clear. Believe, and suspend your disbelief, in equal measure.
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