A new Elizabeth George: a neophyte gorges

March 17, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,sun staff

"In the Presence of the Enemy," by Elizabeth George. Bantam. 519 pages. $23.95 It's true of any good mystery series: The neophyte will never fully appreciate the latest installment as much as the loyal reader. Yet the individual book must stand on its own merits, satisfying those who have not met its main characters. "In the Presence of the Enemy" was my introduction to the eight-book series by Elizabeth George and I grudgingly concede veteran readers may find more pleasure in the novel than I did. Then again, there's always something special about first times.

A California-based novelist, Ms. George sets her series in contemporary England, complete with a continuing cast of characters that include Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. As someone who grew up on E. Nesbit and thinks that the word "rumor" looks better with a second "u," I confess to being a sucker for this sort of thing.

But Ms. George isn't merely pulling off a parlour trick for Anglophiles. "In the Presence of the Enemy" takes a terrific set-up and builds on it with integrity. The solution satisfies one intellectually and emotionally, playing fair not only with the clues, but with the book's central themes. Lots of clever writers can put together ingenious puzzles; Ms. George is true to her story's heart.

Dennis Luxford is a tabloid editor, the King of Sleaze. Eve Bowen is a rising star in the Conservative Party and government, a woman who turned the birth of her illegitimate daughter 10 years earlier into a political advantage. Then the daughter is kidnapped, and the kidnapper insists her father admit paternity in the pages of Luxford's newspaper. It should be one of the best stories of Luxford's Tory-bashing career, but he has a small problem: He's the father and Eve Bowen believes he took the child in order to embarrass her. She refuses to go along with the kidnapper's demand and won't even tell the police the girl is missing.

What is a parent? It's a question "In the Presence of the Enemy" returns to again and again. What does Luxford owe the girl he has never been allowed to acknowledge? Who is closest to the girl, her mother, or the stepfather, who actually spends time with her? "A father's dreams shouldn't become a son's nightmares," one character observes. Not every child in this book will survive a parent's dreams.

A successful mystery series requires a balancing act: Each book must stand on its own, while satisfying those readers who have been there from the beginning. The continuing characters may crack the case, but their own lives remain something of a muddle. I gleaned enough from "In the Presence of the Enemy" to feel I've made a good start on knowing Lynley, et al. And now I will reap the singular reward of the latecomer, gorging myself on the books that came before.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer at The Sun who writes frequently about publishing. Her first novel, a mystery set in Baltimore, will be published by Avon next year.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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