Elizabeth George's Well-Schooled in Murder

Elizabeth George’s mystery novels have been translated into 13 languages, filmed by the BBC, and regularly appear on bestseller lists. George has won the Anthony Award, the Agatha Award, and Le Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Well-Schooled in Murder, her fourth Thomas Lynley detective novel, won the coveted MIMI award.

Many readers mistakenly believe that Elizabeth George is British, not American. Her novels are all set in England, and she is so familiar with British places, characters, and mores that many assume she is native-born. In a Vancouver Sun interview, George said, “I go on location to do the research. If there’s a place that’s in a book, I’ve been in that place.”

Well-Schooled in Murder begins with a scene that is familiar to many parents. Mrs Whateley worries when her 13-year-old boy does not call home as planned. But unlike most situations, this one becomes a parent’s worst nightmare. Mrs Whatley’s fear turns to panic when she discovers that her son has been missing from boarding school for three days. The boy’s tortured, nude body is found later in a churchyard cemetery.

This novel is a unique blend of hard-boiled and soft-boiled elements. The self-contained rural setting and upper-class characters ground the mystery in the English cozy tradition, but the violence, sadism, sexual perversion, and torture belong to the tough world of the hard-boiled novel.

This combination of hard- and soft-boiled elements extends to the Scotland Yard police partners who solve the crime. Detective Thomas Lynley is a titled earl, after the fashion of Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. His foul-mouthed, working-class partner, Detective Barbara Havers, would not be out of place in the mean streets of a Chandler or Hammett novel. Lynley has the glamour of wealth and privilege; Havers, the appeal of the common person’s ordinary concerns. We might wish to be like Lynley but we identify with Havers.

Hidden within the prestigious independent school of Bredgar Chambers are numerous sordid secrets. In New York Times review of the novel, Marilyn Stasio calls George “a gifted storyteller in the Grand Guignol tradition,” driving “her sensationalistic plot by piling on events, which keeps it as busy as a horror movie.” (Grand Guignol is “a popular French form of melodrama featuring bloody murders, rapes, and other sensational outrages, presented in lurid and gruesome detail.”) Certainly the novel has no shortage of sadists and perverts. Yet the sordid details do not appear gratuitous.

George is indeed the “gifted storyteller” that Stasio identifies her as. Readers become immersed in the twists and turns of the plot, finding it difficult to put the book down. Often critics and reviewers underestimate the skill involved in creating a clever and gripping story. The masterful plotting in Well-Schooled in Murder certainly makes this novel unforgettable.

George’s characters have a convincing psychological depth. She explores the hidden recesses of both villains’ and heroes’ psyches, drawing us into their minds and hearts.

The first chapter is set in an enclosed garden. Enclosure is, in fact, the keynote of the novel. The sealed-off world of the school breeds a mentality of elitism and exclusion, an outlook that leads to arrogance, disdain, brutality, and ultimately crime.

George’s works are not hastily conceived or written; she has said that she usually spends 2 ½ years on a book. The smallest details of her novels are chosen for their significance. Take for instance, the names of the houses within the school. The killer lives in Erebus, a house named after the Greek god associated with the “primeval darkness that emerged from Chaos” (68). And recall where the victim is killed – a room in Calchius. In classical mythology, Calchius is “the herald of death” (149). Details such as these extend and universalize the experience of the story.

Once you finish the story and recall the epitaph, you will see the grand scheme of the novel, a scheme reminiscent of powerful Greek tragedies.

George, Elizabeth. Well-Schooled in Murder. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.