Sunday, October 22

What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George

Review by Theodore Feit 


At the end of Elizabeth George's earlier book, With No One As Witness, Helen Lynley, wife of Scotland Yard Acting Superintendent Thomas Lynley, is shot dead on her doorstep.  The new novel, which diverges from the author's accustomed series and its characters, has an entirely different focus.  It concentrates, instead, on what led up to the murder.   It really is a standalone, even if it is based on an event that took place in a prior series book.


It is a sad tale of a very troubled 'half-breed' family in an impoverished section of London.  Three children are dumped on the doorstep of their aunt by their grandmother who has been tending them before leaving for Jamaica.  There is 12-year-old Joel, 15-year-old Vanessa and eight-year-old Toby.  Their mother is in a mental institution.  Their father was murdered years before.   The youngest floats between fantasy and reality, while the oldest withdraws into drugs and sex.  Joel attempts to keep everyone together, protecting them from neighborhood roughs.  Their aunt, while well-meaning, has no experience with children, and is busy with a full-time job and trying to establish her own business.


In an effort to protect his siblings, Joel makes a pact with the devil, a neighborhood gangster and dope peddler, who has other plans for the family—like revenge for the sister who has spurned him.  The outcome is tragedy for all.  My only criticism would be the title:   It seems while Joel was told to shoot the victim, he couldn't, and a confederate committed the crime.   But this hardly detracts from this excellent novel, a study in poverty, helplessness and violence.  The complexity of the plot, character depictions and issues of class, race and life without hope are so well written that the reader is overwhelmed.  The novel is as fine as any work this author has written.


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