Wednesday, June 11, 2008
I've just finished reading a novel that has had a profound impact on me, What Came Before He Shot Her? and I'd like to draw it to your attention.
If you browse through the daily headings from the BBC World News from Britain, you get the impression that every day in London there are male , teenage murders of other teenage males by stabbing and sometimes shooting. Sober statistics show that the impression is not false. Although murder rates overall in the capital are decreasing (June 2008) teenage murder is not.
Do you think this is an exaggeration?
Take a look at this recent article in the Daily Telegraph.
Elizabeth George, an American writer who divides the year between the USA and the UK, is well-known as the author of detective stories, and her Inspector Lynley series is a TV success in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. She has recently written a straight novel, though, a mainstream novel that does not belong to the entertainment genre ‘detective story’ , though it does have a detective story ending.
Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her? is competently structured and told in a clear, well-written style. There is no attempt at social or political or economic analysis and she sticks to individual histories and social and psychological explanations and I, for one, see that as a strength. This is a novel not an academic study.
It is set in West London and is about three young children of West Indian, mixed extraction, Noel, aged 12 , bright, who wins a poetry prize, his younger brother Toby, who has learning problems but to whom he is devoted, his sister, Ness, 14 , and their aunt who has the three dumped unannounced on her front doorstep when her mother suddenly decides to return to Trinidad to follow her man.
The sister is the first to go seriously off the rails. She gets involved with drugs, does fellatio to pay for them, stops attending school and becomes the mistress of a local drug baron. She is 14 or 15. It later emerges that she was gang-raped as a child by her grandfather's friends. Quickly, the whole family, despite the intervention of the social services, get sucked into a world of violence and intimidation. (Don’t spoil the impact of the book by stealing a glance at the end until you get there).
There my be a couple of characters who are slightly overdrawn, the language, though extremely good, may not achieve the tautness and penetration of a literary masterpiece, but I challenge anyone to produce a more chillingly convincing account of what the teenage world of parts of London and other large cities in the UK has become like. George also has the gift of being able to convincingly explain the motivation and behavior of people that are inscrutable to many of us. And she is excellent at writing about the children, Joel, Toby and Ness.
It is a long book (643 pages) but you will turn the pages eagerly.
The picture that she paints is contemporary, convincing and totally depressing. This is feral young London. I've not remotest idea what could be done to improve matters.
No solutions suggest themselves and in this modern , vicious, Oliver Twist story there is no happy ending.
For those of you who like to read other people's opinions of books you have read or about to read here are quotations from selected notices.
From Amazon USA
From Publishers Weekly
Bestseller George (With No One as Witness) departs from the usual investigative nuts and bolts of her Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers mystery thrillers with this searing examination of the lives of one horribly dysfunctional family and their immigrant London milieu. Switching uncomfortably at times from dialogue in a rough patois to exposition in a language both formal and sociological, George delivers a stinging indictment of a society unable to respond effectively to the needs of its poorer citizens. Kendra Osborne, a 40-year-old woman with modest ambitions and plans to achieve them, has no idea how to cope when her mother "dumps" her sister's three children on her doorstep and heads for Jamaica. Fifteen-year-old Ness, 11-year-old Joel and seven-year-old Toby each have a wealth of problems exacerbated by their mixed-race heritage. It's no accident that George refers to Dickens on the first page of this earnest but perhaps overly didactic novel, which focuses on the burdens borne by Joel as he's swept by forces he can neither understand nor control into a fatal encounter. 8-city author tour. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Scotland Yard detective Thomas Lynley is all but missing from this novel, and critics aren't sure what to make of his absence as well as that of most of the other popular series characters (only two of Lynley's police sidekicks appear—as minor walk-ons). The majority of critics cite this psychological crime novel as a deeply disturbing and unrelenting, yet illuminating, portrayal of a dysfunctional family and of the ways its members can go tragically astray. Two reviewers, however, cited a disconnected narrative, an overly complicated plot, too much detail, and a bleak, hopeless tone as major faults of the novel. There are, of course, no surprises about how the novel ends: Elizabeth George has already told that story in With No One As Witness.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
Their father is gunned down. Their mother is institutionalized. Their grandmother dumps them with their aunt. Elizabeth George's prequel to WITH NO ONE AS WITNESS relates the turbulent lives of the Campbell children up to the climax of the earlier book: the murder of Inspector Lynley's wife, Helen. Narrator Charles Keating is every bit as believable as the harried middle-aged aunt, the grandmother heading to Jamaica, and the ferociously angry 15-year-old Ness as he is the overburdened 12-year-old Joel and 8-year-old Toby, a child with developmental problems. Audio is the smart choice for this grim story. On the page, British street slang might prove daunting, but Keating slips in and out of the argot of black London with dexterity. S.J.H. © AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
Fans of George's popular Inspector Lynley series were stunned by the brutal slaying of the Scotland Yard detective's wife in With No One as Witness (2005). Her new novel unveils the events leading up to this bold, bloody event (though Lynley himself is conspicuously absent). Life is traumatic for mixed-race siblings Joel, Ness, and Toby Campbell. With their father murdered in the street and their mother in a mental institution, the trio is left in the care of Aunt Kendra, a twice-divorced fortysomething with the will but not the wherewithal to raise three kids. Teenager Ness and 12-year-old Joel do their best to cope with their new life in London's often-menacing neighborhood of North Kensington. Ness ditches school, does drugs, and becomes romantically entangled with Blade, a nefarious local drug dealer with a cobra tattoo on his cheek. Joel strives to keep the peace in a precarious domestic situation; he watches out for his younger brother, Toby, whose odd appearance and slow wit make him a frequent target of cruel peers. After numerous run-ins with the law, Ness is assigned to a promising community service project. Meanwhile, Joel seals his fate by bravely defending his brother and sister from a bloodthirsty young thug. George deftly depicts the palaver and predicaments of middle- and working-class Brits in this dark, chilling tale of desperation and revenge. Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
A review from the Guardian, UK
What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George, read by Charles Keating (10hrs unabridged, Hodder, £19.99)
Why haven't I read Elizabeth George before? Maybe because someone told me she was a serious crime writer, and I listen to thrillers to escape, not to think. All this will change; she's brilliant. This is in fact the follow-up to an earlier book, also available on audio, With No One As Witness, but it stands perfectly well alone. At the end of the first book, the wife of a senior policeman is gunned down in Belgravia, and the face of a 12-year-old black kid from a north Kensington estate is caught on CCTV. Joel Campbell is arrested. This is the story of the events that led to his involvement with the ruthless black and Asian gangs that terrorise the streets and housing estates of Ladbroke Grove. He's basically a lovely kid, though God knows why when you look at his background. His father was shot dead in a brawl, his mother's in a mental hospital, his elder sister is a drug addict, his younger brother has learning difficulties. Every morning before he goes to school, Joel drops him at his special learning centre in the Harrow Road. "Wield words, not weapons," advises Joel's remedial English teacher Mr Wetherall, but with terrifying neighbours like The Blade, tattooed with a striking cobra down one cheek and demanding unquestioning loyalty, it's easier said than done. ..............
As I write, there are copies on sale through Amazon.co.uk for 0.08 pence!
(Don't worry if you land on my Amazon page, I won't be billed).
If you manage to read (or hear) the book, or have already read it or heard it or have an opinion to share I'd be delighted to read your comments on this blog.
Dennis Osnabrueck 12 June 2008