Monday, October 11, 2010

WHERE, WHERE THE HELL IS LOU? (Reading Elizabeth George)

For a while I had a pretty good thing going here.  And then around a year and a half ago, I just crapped out.  I didn't crap out with my blogging-- I've been pretty regular about posting on Loueyville-- I just couldn't get back on track with my reading.

As many of you loyal readers-- if you still exist-- know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2008.  Between the stress of the very "idea" of cancer and the subsequent chemo treatments, my mind became... a little fried.  Turns out "Chemo Brain" is a very real thing.  And some studies say it can last as long as five years.  Chemo brain gnaws at your short term memory, makes you forgetful, and disrupts your ability to concentrate.  My Mama has been calling me "the absent minded professor" since I was a wee lass; dump a steaming load of chemo brain on an already scattered soul... and it's kind of a whole mess of "what was I saying? Hey look at that pretty flower!"

Reading takes stamina.  It takes focus.  And if your short-term memory is shot, it's pretty hard to keep a story in your head once you put the book down.  

After a while of trial and failure, I got tired of be frustrated all of the time, of having to go back ten or twenty pages every time I picked up a book.  So for a long time, I just didn't read anything longer than a light short story. 

But sometimes, after you've failed at something over and over, you have this glimmer of success.  And whatever it was that gave you that feeling of succeeding?... Well, you tend to get kind of attached to that thing.  If it made you feel good once, maybe it will make you feel good again...

... gosh, I sound like I'm talking about addiction.  And maybe I sort of am.  

That thing that made me feel like a successful reader again?  Well, that thing was Elizabeth George.

After years of listening to Big Mama wax lovingly about George's characters, I decided to pick up her 1988 debut novel A GREAT DELIVERANCE.  And something about those characters just clicked with me.  And so I tried again with PAYMENT IN BLOOD.  And I became hooked.

Last week, I turned the final page of George's August 2010 release THIS BODY OF DEATH.  And that means I have read all eighteen books of George's Inspector Lyndley series... in a row... with almost nothing in between.

If that simple fact is not an endorsement of George's writing, I don't know what else to tell you.

Of course I do....

The first thing that everyone notes about Elizabeth George is that she's a woman from San Francisco who writes convincingly about a whole cast of characters, from various walks of life, who work in and around New Scotland Yard.  "Convincingly" doesn't do George justice.  Her grasp of all things British is extraordinary. Not only does she write "convincingly" about New Scotland Yard and middle and upper class Brits, she wrote an entire novel, WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER, from the perspective of and, largely in the dialect of, an inner-city, mixed-race ten year old.  

But more extraordinary still, to me at least, is George's daring. (Mild spoiler alert... if you're familiar at all with this series, you've heard this before)  A great number of books into the series, George dared to kill off one of the most beloved regular characters, in a numbingly tragic sort of way (I thought I was prepared for it... I could not have been prepared for it).  And then she had the unmitigated gall to follow that book with a book that entirely abandoned the regular cast of characters to rewrite the murder of the beloved character from his/her killer's perspective!  AND she made that killer not only sympathetic, but desperately tragic... perhaps even as tragic as the death that he/she had caused.

And finally... most extraordinary is the fact that this most recent book, THIS BODY OF DEATH, ranks among my favorites.  Eighteen books into the series, and George is still hitting them out of the park.  After you've read seventeen of George's books, you come to trust her unconditionally.  Sure, for the first 500 pages or so, you have no idea why she seems to be recounting two separate and disconnected stories of graphic, horrible murders.  But you know, you just know, that it's going to somehow gel before the end.  

I hope George has eighteen more books in her.  Certainly her characters' personal lives have nowhere near completed whatever journeys they seem to be on.  And every new book-- there was one clunker in the bunch, but I forget which one it was, and I'm loathe to stigmatize any book in particular-- presents new, interesting crimes and new, interesting challenges for her cast of many.  Yes, these are Lyndley novels-- or so they are called-- but I figure most female readers, at least, are as invested, if not more invested, in his train-wreck of a female partner, Barbara Havers.  That being said, I'd be crushed if the series ended without solid resolution for at least five or six of the minor cast.  

I've tried watching the PBS (BBC) series, but two hours doesn't do these books justice.  Many viewers complain that the actor who plays Lyndley isn't handsome enough (uh, yeah he is) or that Havers is too pretty (yes, she is, but what a lame complaint).  But for me, it's about the fact that George's novels average around 700 pages in paperback; that means I've spent upwards of 12,000 pages of my reading life with Elizabeth George's characters.  Try replicating that on film.  

So, that's where I've been, kids.  I hope I am back.  Here's to me finding my next Elizabeth George!

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