Investigating Inspector Lynley

By Sidney Williams

Although not the most famous sleuth, Inspector Lynley is who I attribute my current love (borderline obsession) with British mystery dramas. Written by Elizabeth George, An American, each setting is well developed and well researched, giving Lynley the entirety of the UK to investigate. Despite being the 8th Earl of Asherton, Thomas Lynley has dedicated his life to the (relatively) lowly status of Detective Inspector (DI) for Scotland Yard. He and his partner, Detective Sergeant (DS) Barbara Havers are assigned to a myriad of cases across the UK. I started this series through the BBC show that ran from 2001 to 2008, in an episodic “monster of the week” format where each mystery was largely independent from the rest. It was addictive, and the chemistry between Lynley and Havers is unmatched. Each episode of the show is an hour long…but each book is at least 600 pages. With all that extra space, Elizabeth George can add a lot more to a story than could be put (or would be allowed to be put) on television. I’ll talk about my impressions of the overall story structure and topics covered later in this article, and I also have a couple reviews of specific Lynley mysteries (A Missing Joseph and A Payment in Blood) posted if you want even more information. 

Overview of the story so far

One of the parts of the Lynley series that I like the most is that you can pick up any book in the series and the only context you’d be missing is by how much the characters have grown emotionally and in their relationships. This is a common structure in serialized mystery novels, but the difference (for me at least) is that the strength of these interpersonal relationships could carry a series on its own, especially when considering the side characters. Each one of the Lynley mysteries are quite long (averaging in at over 600 pages a piece according to this blog) so there is plenty of room in the books outside of the mystery dedicated to character building. 

Main Characters

Every book has a new set of characters which temporarily become “main characters” such as Maggie Spence in Missing Joseph and Jeremy Vinny in Payment in Blood, but this side cast rotates with every book leaving only a core few.

Inspector Thomas Lynley: the namesake of the series. He is suave and has a history of wealth and prestige, but he has given his time utilizing his excellent deductive skills as a detective. Unfortunately, due to his generation and position, he is often entitled, jealous, and occasionally misogynistic. For those reasons, I very frequently have a hard time liking him as a character, but he is an excellent detective, even though Elizabeth George early on establishes that he is not infallible, and his flaws often get in the way of his work. As the books go on he becomes better and his flaws less extreme.

Sergeant Barbara Havers: Lynley’s Detective Sergeant, Barbara Havers comes from a lower class background, and starts the series caring for her elderly, and ailing parents. She is a very effective foil to Lynley’s upper crust upbringing, even going as far as being able to see through the lies of lords and ladies in Payment in Blood when Lynley was blind to them. Havers has an extremely hard life that she wants to keep hidden, later in the series Lynley does find out and try to help, much to the chagrin of Havers.

Simon St. James: a genius forensic scientist, and far more emotionally intelligent than Lynley, Simon is an old friend that is almost always involved in Lynley’s cases. He was injured in a car accident which Lynley blames himself for as he was the one driving. This injury was one that never healed and so Simon is effectively crippled. Notably, he was in a relationship with Helen Clyde who is another person of interest, and his wife was previously engaged to Lynley.

Deborah St. James: Wife of Simon St. James and an aspiring photographer. She is often embroiled in an emotional crisis and effectively provides the “emotional” side to Simon, in writing her this way she often comes off as annoying and shallow, at least to me as the reader. She is also the character which contributes the least to the actual mystery solving portion of the story. 

Helen Clyde: Lady Helen Clyde, much like Lynley, often butts against the expectations inherent in ladyship as she spends her time working in Simon’s lab or living life without the candor expected of aristocracy. This often causes friction with her father, but not enough to evoke a change. 

Elizabeth George’s Writing Style

Although not particularly flowery, George is very thorough with the world and the characters. Everything is described fully, and without much effort you could close your eyes and imagine yourself alongside Lynley or Simon St. James. I am a big fan of this sort of writing as it doesn’t force you to get lost in the beauty of the prose, but it is still eloquent, and more than sufficient for transporting you to the world. She very much focuses on revealing details as they become important, avoiding visualization overload. 

Commentary on the Issues I’ve noticed

Inspector Lynley is a very convincing Gen-x privileged white man. He is impulsive, possessive, and quite often selfish before thinking things through. This is great from a writing perspective, never for a moment do I feel a disconnect between his upbringing and his place of power and who he is. But it does make it quite difficult to like one of the main characters. Additionally, there are points where other characters communicate Lynley’s virtues to the reader through exposition, and that exposition is often in direct conflict with some of the Lynley-centered scenes that the reader has just witnessed. For example, in A Payment in Blood Lynley is hyper fixated on a suspect just because that suspect has been sleeping with a woman he has a crush on. This translates into Lynley being a massive dick throughout the first half of the book. Despite his actions, Havers still has an inner monologue about how well liked and personable Lynley historically is. An argument could be made that this was to establish a juxtaposition between expected and observed behavior, but there was nowhere near enough buildup for this to be effective. On top of that, it’s really difficult to enjoy a character being an objectively questionable person for over half the time he’s the focus of the book. I will say though, that as the books go on Lynley does get better, but there are still plenty of times where I, as a reader, am not on his side, and would not enjoy being around him. 

There is a lot of sexual content in these books, sometimes to the point of being borderline smut. Some books have very graphic descriptions, others only have mild descriptions and allusions, but it is always present. The issue with this is that it oftentimes seems gratuitous, and doesn’t really add to the story, or further the plot, at most it builds on characters, which, although important, could have been accomplished without the sex. I have talked about one of the more extreme examples of sexual content in George’s writing in my review of Missing Joseph in that case there is an argument for the existence of this content, I made the argument and then stated that the character building would have not suffered very much from not including scenes which are inherently uncomfortable. This is perhaps the most common issue that I have while reading. And although there is always an argument to be made for their inclusion, every scene where this argument must be made just becomes a slog.

Conclusion

I really love the Inspector Lynley series. The mysteries are winding and in-depth, the characters are interesting (if not always likable), and the atmospheres and supporting cast always stand out. George does an amazing job…for the most part. As mentioned throughout this look at Lynley, and in my reviews of specific books, there are times where the subject material is unnecessarily graphic, or uncomfortable, and the sexual content can feel a little gratuitous. I was able to enjoy the stories despite these problems, but in talking about these books I have sometimes had to seriously consider whether or not it would be appropriate for me to talk about (or even recommend) a book like some of George’s on the BookPeople of Moscow website. However, of all the mystery novels I’ve read, Lynley has some of the farthest reaching and complex mysteries, along with the best single-book development of environments out there. The books are long, making each one a commitment, but one where you learn a significant amount about everyone involved, so there is a lot to recommend the series for. This can be (somewhat) expanded to the TV series, which is how I was introduced. Unfortunately, the TV show had to drastically compress each book, converting 5-600 pages into an hour episode necessarily cuts a lot. The general story beats are still there, but a lot of character, and environmental development is missing, often leading to a mystery which is both less deep and more confusing than the book version. The show is still great and I recommend everyone watch it (it has cut out most if not all the overly sexual content), but it is definitely not quite the experience the books are. So, if you think you can handle the issues, I strongly urge you to read the Lynley mysteries, he needs more clout and notoriety. George has constructed a very impressive lineup of thorough, and engaging mystery dramas which will satisfy any mystery lover who can stomach being uncomfortable for a few pages.

Missing Joseph (Inspector Lynley #6) By Elizabeth George Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780553385489
Availability: This book is not at our warehouse, but probably is available from another source. We'll contact you to let you know for sure.
Published: Bantam - April 15th, 2008

Deborah and Simon St. James have taken a holiday in the winter landscape of Lancastershire, hoping to heal the growing rift in their marriage. But in the barren countryside awaits bleak news: The vicar of Wimslough, the man they had come to see, is dead—a victim of accidental poisoning.


Payment in Blood (Inspector Lynley #2) By Elizabeth George Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780553384802
Availability: This book is backordered at the warehouse. When you order, we'll contact you with more info about availability.
Published: Bantam - May 1st, 2007

“The Lynley books constitute the smartest, most gratifyingly complex and impassioned mysteries now being published.”—Entertainment Weekly