There is only one murder in Elizabeth George’s wrenching new mystery The Presence of the Enemy, and it occurs discreetly between chapters — off camera, as it were. But the awful, brutal pointlessness of the crime resonates solemnly throughout the novel, affecting the victim’s family, the suspects, and even the investigators who nearly tear themselves and each other apart trying to make sense of it. More than most of her contemporaries, George is a writer who respects murder; in her series of novels featuring Scotland Yard’s wealthy and cultured investigator Thomas Lynley (this is the eighth), she’s less interested in random acts of violence than in the taking of a life as the apex of a melodrama that has seismic effects upon families, classes, and generations. Her books are comedies of manners, social studies, psychological case histories, and always, finally, tragedies. This superb latest chapter confirms what her growing core of fans has come to realize: The Lynley books constitute the smartest, most gratifyingly complex and impassioned mystery series now being published.
Also the weirdest. George is a Californian who has staked out the British mystery as her territory; she writes with the knowledge of a native but the enthusiasm of a committed tourist. And her novels are driven by events, not investigators; in fact, the lofty Lynley and Barbara Havers, his lowborn, unapologetically surly slob of a partner, barely show up in the first 200 pages of In the Presence of the Enemy while George allows a host of new characters to set the table.
And what a table: As the book opens, 10-year-old Charlotte Bowen, the product of a loveless fling, has been kidnapped and apparently buried alive. Her mother is a member of Parliament and a fiercely ambitious junior minister in a Tory cabinet; she’s shrewd enough to have publicly acknowledged her daughter’s illegitimacy and even turned it into political capital. What she has never revealed is the identity of Charlotte’s father — the editor of England’s most popular (and most antigovernment) tabloid newspaper, and a man she detests. When both parents receive notes demanding that they go public in order to save Charlotte’s life, a furious standoff pits two of England’s most Machiavellian institutions — Parliament and Fleet Street — against each other.
Imagine PBS’s Prime Suspect series crossed with the House of Cards trilogy and you begin to get a sense of how thoroughly Elizabeth George inspects the ground she covers. In her earlier books, her Anglophile taste for detail — as tiny as the type of flower that would grow in a window box in Kent — sometimes got her off track; her prose seemed to be strolling around and taking in the sights when it had more serious business awaiting it. But George’s more recent novels have rid themselves of a researcher’s daintiness — even when, in the excellent Missing Joseph, she built 496 pages around the ancient mystery cliché Who poisoned the vicar’s tea? the novel turned out to be the kind of dark feast of roiling sexuality and family horror never imagined by Agatha Christie.
In the Presence of the Enemy offers journalistic and political atmosphere that is letter-perfect (or, as George would put it, spot on), but only to enrich a deep, sorrowful shudder of a story. The novel’s theme — what parents do to their children in the name of love, greed, hate, or self-interest — ricochets through half a dozen relationships, almost always unpredictably, and by the end, nobody remains unaffected; even the friendships among the five investigators who show up in all of George’s novels have been rocked badly. That’s a bonus for longtime fans, but those who haven’t read any of the Lynley mysteries shouldn’t hesitate to start with this gripping installment of a series that grows in stature with every new book. A