It seems that everywhere I look in the literary world, that question pops up, under one name or another: Pulp vs. Literary, Genre vs. Mainstream, Lowbrow vs. Highbrow. (If you happen to have missed it, the article in the Atlantic and the Hobgoblin’s post are good places to start).
I don’t take sides in this debate, because I like to read in both categories, and to me, this kind of label gives no insurance that the book will be good or bad, fascinating or boring. I‘ve found myself giving the cold shoulder to Stephen King’s bestsellers, but when I read his approach to writing, I find it sensible and efficient. Yes I know, efficiency is not a literary-approved standard to judge a mainstream novel. Yet, I hold on to it, as I haven’t found any better yet, especially when I write. Either a text “works” or it doesn’t, even if you obviously don’t pick up a Harlan Coben thriller for the same reasons you buy a novel by Proust. But then what never ceases to fascinate me is why it works or not. How can I make it work? What flaw did it stumble upon?
A Great Deliverance is Elizabeth George first published mystery, featuring the posh, dashing and sensitive Detective Inspector Linley, and the lower-class, quick-tempered and plain Sergent Barbara Havers. I read a lot of her mysteries before, and it’s a bit awkward to read the first of the series just now, even though each story is independent. Let’s say it bluntly, it’s good, but not her best one. The plot is complex, yet under control : running parallel lines of investigation is one of her forte. Action flows naturally with the right twists and turns. The motivation for the murder is compelling and she describes well how events and their psychological impact sparked off the killer’s acting out (I hate when it’s just a madman killing for the fun of it).
I see three problems that leave some not-really-satisfying aftertaste. The first is that she has too many characters. She wants to picture a whole village, a tight community where rumors abound. It’s an interesting topic, but my husband and I (Mr. Smithereens has become a fan too) have had to turn pages back and forth to make sure we got the relations right. I do think she could have done without a few of them and not lost much.
The second is that the resolution is quite shocking, but doesn’t really resolve anything. Closing a case isn’t always a success. It’s quite daring and ambitious for a first book in a series to start with such an “open” conclusion. It puts the book in a very dark atmosphere that is more akin to thrillers than mysteries. In George’s book Writing Away, she writes that this book’s subject is about letting go of the past. Her implementation is a tad too systematic, as every character is trying to resolve past issues. And getting over the past can’t be just achieved in a few explanation scenes.
The third problem isn’t a fatal flaw: her main protagonists are not completely settled down in their roles. They doubt a lot, they’re not emotionally consistent. They spend a lot of time trying to appear something that they’re not, or misreading each other. It’s not bad per se, but it’s tiring for the reader. They seem too much shell-shocked. I guess that she didn’t know them well enough yet and the pair isn’t completely working yet (that would happen in real life – it takes time adjusting to a new colleague, right?). She obviously improved that in her next books, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept reading them. Overall I found it an interesting read, because I could reflect on the character developments she’s brought in her next books, mainly on Linley / Havers and their sidekicks, and on the improvement in plot-building in general.
Which brings me to the question Kate S. asked a while ago: What is your favorite novel? The proposed definition isn’t really a matter of feeling:
But the question was favourite novel, which novel I visit most often in my thoughts, know most intimately, down to the structure of its cadences, and which fills me with the greatest covetousness and inspires me to emulation. This is my truest test: when I think of Humboldt’s Gift I immediately want to write. (Sven Birkerts in Reading Life: Books for the Ages)
If we’re talking about construction, emulation and caring about words, then I guess Elizabeth George is my favorite author these days. I don’t care if this choice looks definitely lowbrow and not literary enough. Her mysteries make me want to dissect her writing and reach for my keyboard to build my own.