Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A terrific thriller

Elizabeth George's 1996 mystery In the Presence of the Enemy, the first of her books I have read, is a gem. I can understand why so many readers rate this author and this particular novel so highly. Although it is more than 600 pages long, there is not one dull page. And although it has numerous characters, all are so clearly drawn that each remains distinct in the reader's mind the rest of the way, a feat not every writer can pull off.

If I have a complaint, it lies with the title, In the Presence of the Enemy. It quickly becomes clear that only a handful of characters, perhaps just two or three, could possibly be the killer if that title really means what it says. Thus, when George finally reveals her big surprise, it isn't quite the surprise to readers that it is to the investigators.

The story begins with the kidnapping of a little girl, the daughter of a Tory Member of Parliament, Eve Bowen. Bowen has kept the identify of the girl's father a secret mainly because he is Dennis Luxford, editor of a London tabloid that specializes in scandal, especially Tory scandal. It is Luxford, now married to a former model and the father of a son, who first hears from the kidnapper. The man wants him to reveal on his front page the details about the birth of his first child. Luxford, although he has had no contact at all with the little girl, is willing to do this, but Bowen won't allow it. She insists Luxford himself is behind the kidnapping as an evil plot to both bring down the Conservative government and to increase his newspaper's circulation. She continues believing this even after the discovery of the body of her little girl.

Then Leo, Luxford's son, is kidnapped.

George's hero, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of  Scotland Yard, plays a relatively insignificant role in this case and, in fact, becomes something of a villain himself  when he lashes out against members of his team and even the woman he hopes to marry early  in the novel. The key investigator turns out to be Lynley's underling Barbara Havers. The lively novel really comes alive whenever she becomes the focus, and it is she who ultimately saves the day.

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