Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” goes the famous line from Anna Karenina, and the Faircloughs, the fractured Cumbrian clan of Elizabeth George’s superb new crime novel Believing the Lie, energetically illustrate Tolstoy’s adage. Secrets and lies make for quality British drama, beginning here with the sudden death of Ian Cresswell, the nephew of industrialist and patriarch Bernard Fairclough, a productive member of the family firm, and, as a child, a resident of the Fairclough home.
Though Bernard and Valerie Fairclough have a legitimate heir to show for their long marriage, Nicholas is a dissolute recovering addict who long ago fell out of favour with his parents and sisters. Though now sober and married, most doubt the security of Nicholas’ abstinence, and some are likewise skeptical of the disability of his sister Mignon, a manipulator of the highest order who relies on her father’s largesse. This leaves a third sibling, Manette, to carry the flag, but she is distracted by regret over the recent dumping of her amiable husband Freddie, who is easily the most normal in the bunch.
Other featured players in a cast of rare richness include Ian’s lover Kaveh, for whom the dead man abandoned his marriage and with it the pretence of heterosexuality; Niamh, the wronged wife acidic with rage and bitterness; Ian and Niamh’s tormented teenage son, Tim; and Deborah and Simon St James, close friends of protagonist DI Thomas Lynley with troubles of their own.
Though an inquest declares Ian’s death accidental, Bernard asks Lynley, sagacious hero of 16 previous George novels, to travel from his London home to conduct a confidential review of the matter. Lynley isn’t alone in kicking over the traces; accompanying him, and soon espying a possible personal sensitivity in common with Nicholas’ wife Alatea, Deborah unwittingly lights the spark that will lead to an explosive conclusion. Meanwhile, a green tabloid reporter is dispatched by his editor to sniff out a tale of money and murder. Whether either are there to be found is just one of the novel’s sombre delights.
In its narrative intricacy and refusal to hew to tired crime fiction conventions, Believing the Lie bears comparison to Val McDermid’s 1999 peerless A Place of Execution. Though George’s work does not address an historical crime, both stories centre on investigators who journey to pastoral idylls to poke doggedly at family and community secrets. And like McDermid’s story, Believing the Lie elevates the genre and its possibilities: the writers delight in the intelligence of their readers and recognize that the ‘whodunit’ can be less compelling than what’s going on besides.
The story skips along at a pace belying its 560 pages. It marries the velocity of a Jilly Cooper novel – truly! – with the gravity of P D James. If this is the standard of 2012’s crop of crime writing, George has set a dauntingly high bar for all-comers. Believing the Lie may be the masterwork of an assured and inspired craftswoman, and it deserves every plaudit it will receive.
4 / 5 stars: A masterful crime thriller; possibly George’s finest work yet.
Click here for more Coast book reviews.