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'What Came Before He Shot Her': New Elizabeth George an odd prequel

Maxine Clarke
The Philadelphia Inquirer

''What Came Before He Shot Her'' by Elizabeth George; HarperCollins ($26.95)

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Every crime-fiction book succeeds or fails on its denouement -- the moment of discovery when the villain is revealed and the mystery solved. And the most important rule for a crime-fiction reviewer is: Don't give away the ending.

Elizabeth George is the author of a baker's dozen novels featuring Scotland Yard detective Thomas Lindley and four associates. The books are interesting character studies as well as cleverly plotted, and deserve their commercial success. One reason I like them, presumably unintended by the American author, is that they portray a Neverland Britain -- a country where Lord Peter Wimsey still exists and where forensic science is the province of independently wealthy amateurs.

In "With No One as Witness,'' the unlucky 13th (and previous) book in the series, one of the core characters is shot. Reviewers did their duty and did not reveal the victim's name. In George's new book, "What Came Before He Shot Her,'' the intriguing premise is to describe the events leading up to the shooting from the perspective of the perpetrators. So how review this book without "spoiling" the previous one? And how convey how the new book culminates in such an infuriating disappointment without giving away the crux of it, too?

In her previous books in the series, George has not provided a linear narrative between novels. She's varied the settings and the issues, relating each novel from the viewpoint of different characters among the core five. And the books have real emotional depth. "Missing Joseph,'' for example, is as moving and insightful an account of infertility as I have read anywhere.

Yet the next book in the series barely features this character at all, instead covering other players and a story about the intricacies of test-match cricket. "For the Sake of Elena'' contains an intense subplot about Helen's sister's post-natal depression -- but this is barely even mentioned in passing in future books. It is as if George worries a subject to death, gets bored with it, and moves on.

"What Came Before'' is a letdown. I wanted to like it, but could not identify with any of the characters, who are either stupid, or only able to see as far as satisfying their next impulse, or opportunistic. The three abandoned children pivotal to the events are so hopelessly abused and stunted by their ghastly early life that they are but passive observers of their own misery from page one (literally). There is poignancy in their hopeless situation, but the long series of disconnected vignettes that constitutes the book creates an unconvincing whole.

The book is a narrow and claustrophobic portrait of the people who live at the "bottom," who have no knowledge of or care about the wider world they live in because it has been beaten or squeezed out of them: No interest in education, no opportunity to learn or read, unrealistic expectations, and desperately poverty. Yet as an attempt at psychological insight about the inevitability of the fate of these damaged children, abandoned by selfish parents and unreachable by anyone in the caring professions, the book fails.

In previous books, one could smile at the unintentionally anachronistic moments in the lives of Thomas, Helen and Simon (Deborah, and particularly Barbara, are far more realistic). But the new book portrays a relentlessly miserable collection of humanity. The bloopers are thus harder to indulge. Major plot developments flop because, for example, nobody has heard of free bus passes or welfare benefits. This is simply not believable. And the book is riddled with such implausibilities.

George certainly has an ear for dialogue and the inner voice of her characters, but the characters in this book do not exist in a cohesive environment, but rather in a series of disconnected scenes that ignore whole chunks of their lives. Some of these scenes work better than others: Vanessa shoplifting in the Queensway shopping mall is spot-on. But others don't: 12-year-old Joel as a mature, instant poet of full-blown genius is ridiculous.

There is, at long last, a denouement of sorts, involving a cold manipulator acting out of pique over a personal rejection. But we do not discover any answers to questions stimulated by the previous book. Why was that particular victim targeted for the titular shooting? What underlies the ruthless coldness of the villain? We aren't told the answer to these and many other questions. And without familiar characters for sustenance, readers are, like the characters in the book, left out in the cold.

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Maxine Clarke is a science editor for the journal Nature. Her Web log Petrona is at http://petrona.typepad.com.

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