woman who appears as the book's second hit-and-run
victim.) The girl's nanny was convicted of the crime, but nothing
is ever so simple as that in these sorts of books, is it? As
the book opens, the nanny has just been released from prison,
and the hit-and-run murders certainly look like revenge
killings she might be undertaking with a methodical pace. But
as George's New Scotland Yard detectives delve into the case,
the twenty-year-old crime seems less clear-cut. As they discover,
solving the present murders requires them first to solve the
old crime--correctly, this time.
It's a nice structure that's particularly
well-suited for such a big, elaborate book, and George should
be congratulated for remaining a mystery writer who believes
in delivering a real mystery, as opposed--for instance--to
Patricia Cornwell, who has begun presenting her Scarpetta series
as an ongoing soap opera with murders offered on the side. While
A Traitor to Memory features George's recurring detectives
(Barbara Havers and Thomas Lynley, among others), their personal
storylines take up significantly less space in the text than
the murder investigations do. And George's deeper themes--of
memory's frailties, of the lies we tell ourselves to make life
more palpable, and, perhaps most importantly, of the enduring
bonds that sustain dysfunctional families--are admirable, and
they suggest George is hunting for big game here.
That doesn't mean the book is flawless, though.
For all of its complexities and ambitions,
the book is too long and slow; it would have profited from a
vigorous editor's snipping. In general, George needs to focus
her language better. Too often, her sentences seem to be empty
exercises in Anglophilic rhythms. Wading through them, the reader
is reminded that George is, in fact, an American from the Midwest,
and she seems to be self-conscious, even now, of her drive to
be a British writer. On a larger scale, the book's weakest moments
come when George offers excerpts from a journal written by the
dead girl's brother, Gideon. A world-famous classical violinist,
he has been crippled by his inability to remember, precisely,
what happened when his sister died, and his therapist has suggested
he keep a journal as a way to recover his lost memories. Unfortunately,
the journals are awkward and wordy, and they slow the pace down
without offering much, pound for pound, in the way of plot or
suspense as compensation.
Still, A Traitor to Memory shouldn't
disappoint George's fans, and readers who find it too slow should
take heart in the knowledge that it should make a good BBC production,
since much of the slack prose will doubtless get lost in the
transition. (George's novels are set to begin airing as BBC films
Patricia Carlon, the Australian master of psychological suspense,
has not seen her own mysteries adapted to the screen is...well,
a mystery. Given how close she is in tone and technique to Hitchcock,
I can't fathom why filmmakers have passed over her for so long.
Or why, for that matter, it took decades for her superb mysteries
to begin appearing in the U.S. Happily, Soho Press is diligently
introducing Carlon to American audiences. So far, it has issued
nine Carlon titles, certainly a service that will give much-needed
good karma to American publishers. It's hard to imagine that
a film deal won't happen sometime--she's simply too cinematic
to be ignored.
Death by Demonstration, Soho's latest Carlon title (it appeared abroad in
1970), probably won't find itself on the top of many producers'
project wish lists, though. As a whodunit, it's a bit of a departure
from Carlon's usual, riveting psychological suspense efforts.
'Condensed,' as Carlon herself would say, it's a private investigator's
effort to find who killed a young woman at an antiwar demonstration.
But there's not much for the investigator, Jefferson Shields,
to go on. "The only fact known," Carlon tells us,
was that she had been struck violently over
the head, and the blow had killed her. The students had howled
of police brutality, a howl that had died to bitter mutters when
medical evidence made it plain no police truncheon had struck
The public would rather shift blame onto the
students and forget it ever happened, but as Shields surmises,
it might not have been a simple case of a social clash turned
unexpectedly deadly. In fact, it might have been a brilliantly
conceived, premeditated murder.
"It has been pointed out to me that the
safest place to kill someone is in the middle of a riot,"
Jefferson Shields confided. "To dress as a rioting student,
to carry a placard espousing a cause, is a disguise available
to any man--or woman; to kill--not to shove or to thrust, or
to protect oneself or shield oneself--but to deliberately strike
with the intention of killing, would be comparatively simple,
also. Others involved would be intent on themselves, their own
safety, their own aggressors, their own property and friends,
and how simple to slip away, with no problems of disposing of
the body after death."
It's certainly an intriguing puzzle, but Soho's
previous Carlon titles are stronger than Death by Demonstration,
I think, for a couple key reasons. First, Death by Demonstration's
crime is a past event, and no one is immediately in jeopardy
of being a fresh victim, as the nine-year-old boy is in Carlon's
The Price of an Orphan, for instance. In place of fretful
suspense about what, exactly, is going to happen in the future,
Death by Demonstration offers a detective who methodically
examines the past as if it were a complicated logic puzzle. The
loss of dramatic tension is considerable.
Death by Demonstration's second weakness, relative to Soho's other Carlon
titles, is the detective himself. He's emotionally cold, and--as
Carlon herself emphasizes--self-consciously gray:
Jefferson Shields shook his grey head. One
thin hand removed the spectacles from his long nose. He leaned
back in the grey chair and his grey eyes surveyed the grey-washed
walls of the small room. All the greyness, the insipid water-colour
that broke the monotony of one grey wall, were part of an illusion
that had been carefully planned not to distract the eye or the
thoughts of anyone sitting in the grey high-backed chair opposite
the desk. Seated there, with only the greyness and the colourless
personality he had deliberately created for himself, they betrayed
themselves--their thoughts turned inwards, and their expressions
revealed far more than the words spoken across the desk.
It may make for valuably invisible investigation,
but it lessens a protagonist's appeal considerably, I think.
Still, Carlon is a genius with plots as puzzles, and as such,
Death by Demonstration delivers the goods nicely. And
take heart: Soho has committed itself to publishing several more