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Oldies But Goodies

For the Sake of Elena, Elizabeth George, Bantam, $7.99.

For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George

For the Sake of Elena is my favorite Elizabeth George novel; it features her series characters Lynley and Havers with no distractions from Deborah and St. James; and it's not set in London, but Cambridge, an academic setting rather than the harsh city streets of London that George usually frequents. The streets of Cambridge are just as populated, though, by the typically dysfunctional, complicated and tormented characters that are always turning up in George's London. Havers is at this point in the series being tortured by her mother who can't be left home alone, and Lynley, a la Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night, is tormented by his love for Lady Helen and her reluctance to give in to it. Of course on top of this is the usual compelling and heartbreaking George story; in this case, the story of a murdered deaf girl.

George opens the novel with a chapter so masterful and evocative that re-reading it made me remember why she's one of the greats. She takes the dead girl and places her firmly in her environment, gives you details of her life - she has a pet mouse - and then smashes it by ending the chapter saying "she had less than fifteen minutes to live". She's accomplished several things here, the main one being that you as a reader now care about Elena and are upset that she's dead. It makes you more invested in the story, and all the more fascinated as George, perhaps one of the most masterful and detailed of all psychological mystery writers, unravels and exposes Elena's personality and her ties to the different people in her life - her parents, her friends, her professors. To all of them Elena is almost a membrane on which each projects whatever they want to see - not all the projections are good or happy ones, and together they add up to an extremely complex rendering of Elena as a person. Everyone eventually is seen through her lens.

Inexorably Lynley and Havers - two of the more opposite and yet satisfying duos in mystery fiction - figure out why Elena was killed. Every Elizabeth George novel, I think, ends with a conundrum - is it in character for the killer to behave as he/she did? Would you have acted that way yourself? Because of the extraordinary detail in each character rendering, as a reader it's easy, if painful, to put yourself in the shoes of almost every character, and to wonder if, given the same triggers and circumstances, you would act the same way. The real genius of Elizabeth George is that she's able to combine this kind of psychological detail with a compelling police novel, with rich and varied settings and a recurring cast of characters that most readers are pretty invested in. She's maybe the only writer who apparently compels otherwise rational and intelligent customers to come in and virtually shake me by the shoulders - how can she have done that? How could so and so have acted that way? A writer who can create such vivid reactions in so many people is a writer, I think, who is destined to be re-read and savored for years to come. (Robin)

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