Cricket aside, 'Ashes' worth the effort

August 29, 1994|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Special to The Sun

Even the most ardent Anglophiles in Elizabeth George's audience may be a bit put off when they learn that her latest mystery is a 600-page behemoth about the murder of a cricket player.

Yes, cricket -- "that most elegant of games," the author rhapsodizes, but one that totally confounds most Americans. In this country, the sport's popularity probably ranks somewhere below Australian rules football and curling.

Despite occasional references to bowlers, bails, golden ducks and first elevens, however, Ms. George doesn't overload "Playing for the Ashes" with cricket minutiae. She does explain the title, which takes on a clever double meaning when the method of murder is revealed. "The ashes" constitute the symbolic trophy up for grabs when the English national cricket team plays Australia; and, fittingly, arson was the cause of death of the renowned cricket player, Ken Fleming.

Investigating the case are Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, the patrician pride of New Scotland Yard, and his working-class sergeant, Barbara Havers. Since the principal suspects are scattered across several policing districts, the Yard is asked to conduct the probe -- to the visible dismay of the local detective, who wants the case all to herself.

Gradually, Lynley and Havers uncover the complex web of relationships the dead man had -- with Jimmy, his budding hoodlum of a teen-age son; Jeannie Cooper, his soon-to-be ex-wife; his stunningly beautiful mistress, who just happens to be the wife of the team sponsor; and with Miriam Whitelaw, the former schoolteacher and wealthy widow who nurtured Fleming's ambition to rise to the top of his sport. The victim's celebrity makes the case a high-priority one for the Yard, but the scant physical evidence doesn't provide many clues. Lynley fears that the killer may never be unmasked.

The perfect crime, he ponders, is "one in which none of the evidence collected at the scene could be attached -- beyond the law's required shadow of a doubt -- to the killer. There might be hairs on the corpse, but their presence could be easily explained away. There might be fingerprints in the room with the body, but they would be found to belong to another. . . . These constituted mere circumstantial data, and in the hands of a good defense counsel, they were about as significant as dust motes."

In an intriguing departure from her standard format, Ms. George alternates the straight third-person account of the investigation with chapters narrated by Olivia Whitelaw, Miriam's estranged daughter. Her body deteriorating due to a neuromuscular disease, Olivia battles time to tell her story -- how she grew up hearing her mother sing the praises of Fleming, her prize pupil, and about the devastating incident that caused the bond between mother and daughter to sever irreparably.

Olivia's account is never less than riveting. When the inspectors would start going around in circles, trying to track their elusive quarry, I would find myself wishing to hear her strong, candid voice again.

"Playing for the Ashes" is the seventh novel in Ms. George's series, and as usual, the life of the hapless Sergeant Havers is portrayed as a sea of unending bleakness. While Lynley romps with his gorgeous, aristocratic girlfriend and returns to home-cooked meals prepared by his faithful butler, Havers spends her evenings in her plain little cottage, reading romance novels and feeling guilty about not visiting her senile mother in the nursing home. Perhaps Ms. George is attempting to use her two investigators to represent the inequities of the British class system, but just once, couldn't she give poor Barbara a break?

The book lags a bit after all the suspects have been introduced, but the last hundred pages make up for it. Ms. George's pacing is expert, proof of the skillful touch that has made this California resident a master practitioner of the English mystery novel.

Ms. Trowbridge regularly reviews mysteries for The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Playing for the Ashes"

Author: Elizabeth George

Publisher: Bantam

Length, price: 621 pages, $21.95

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