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Memory & Murder
Elizabeth George's
A Traitor to Memory
& Patricia Carlon's
Death by Demonstration

by Daphne Frostchild

In A Traitor to Memory, Elizabeth George explores her favorite themes--sex, murder and dysfunctional families--at considerable length, while in Death by Demonstration, Patricia Carlon offers up a tidy whodunit in place of her usual psychological suspense novels.

The murderer in Elizabeth George's new mystery, A Traitor to Memory, has a promisingly anonymous modus operandi. As one investigator puts it (in what may be this seven-hundred-page book's only instance of understatement): "Quiet neighbourhood. Pedestrian alone. Night. Black car. Smash." It leaves the killer's gender unclear (after all, a car can render even the smallest woman lethal) and suggests it's an amateur's first (or second) try at murder (guns are so much neater, aren't they? No blood stains on the dented fender, etc.). And the setting is wonderfully eerie. Short of making them traipse around a darkened country house that holds a crazed if socially adept killer, having one's murder victims walk nervously down an empty road at night as a car revs its engine behind them is deliciously chilling stuff.

If night-shrouded murders are only half of what you expect in a popular mystery, though, you don't have to worry. Given this is an Elizabeth George book, you might readily assume that sex--the other half of many mystery readers' (secret) requirements--is integral to the crimes. You wouldn't be wrong. The book's first victim is a grossly overweight sex therapist who is ironically unable to enjoy sex, and the next victim is a middle-aged woman whose body is found--suspiciously--by a man returning from a sex date with yet another middle-aged woman he'd met online. And worse (or is it better?), the man's address is found on the dead woman's body. Was she another online conquest on her way to a rendezvous? It wouldn't be out of place in a George mystery. Sex is commerce, as the sex therapist tells us before she bows out of the story, and we should believe her when it comes to George's storylines, I think.

But the plot is far more intricate than the easy pay-offs that the sex elements suggest. As we soon discover, A Traitor to Memory boasts a big, complicated plot that moves from the present murders to a twenty-year-old case in which a two-year-old girl was drowned in her bath tub. (Her mother was the middle-aged


A Traitor to Memory
Elizabeth George
722 pp.
$26.95 order now logo

Death by Demonstration
Patricia Carlon
Soho Press
190 pp.
$22 order now logo

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 this fall.)


Why 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 blow.


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 Carlon titles. Click here to find any book!


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