Review: Elizabeth George – Believing the Lie

Elizabeth George is a writer whose fortunes, I think, have waxed and waned. I’ve been reading her for years, pretty much since she published her first book. Although many of her novels have a London setting I think that she has been particularly good at embracing other English settings such as Cornwall and Derbyshire. She has also created an interesting dynamic not only in the professional workings of DCI Thomas Lynley and DS Barbara Havers but also in the interweaving relationships between Lynley, his wife Helen and their friends Simon and Deborah St James. However, perhaps under pressure from her publisher or possibly to inject new characters into her books, Helen was brutally killed in With No One as Witness. Her next book was the slightly odd What Came Before her Shot Her not really a crime novel at all although it did accurately reflect the condition of London’s sink estates. Since then, her books in my opinion have been a shadow of their former selves. They haven’t been terrible, just mediocre and I personally think that she has some further great books in her.

So I succumbed to the temptation to read this, even though I have some enticing books to read waiting in my bookshelves. Believing the Lie starts promisingly by sending Lynley up to Cumbria to investigate the accidental death of a nephew of a prominent industrialist who wants convincing that there was nothing more sinister to the mishap. This was a good move because for me one of the most irritating features of the last book was the new relationship that Lynley has embarked on with his boss, Isabelle. Even more promisingly he takes with him Simon and Deborah St James, two characters that I particularly like and who have only had minor roles in more recent books. However, the subsequent investigation into the suspicious death of Ian Cresswell was disjointed and slightly surreal. There is an ongoing theme in George’s books about the inability of Simon and Deborah to have children. This was once more woven into the main narrative but seemed removed from Lynley’s own investigations. I can see that ‘children’ was the central theme of the book, focusing on the relationships between parents and their offspring and the deep-seated fractures that can tear families apart. But in my opinion there was just too much going on and there didn’t seem to be much actual crime in the book.

The redeeming feature, for me, was Barbara Havers in London carrying out her own investigations. She is, as always an appealing character and her relationship with her neighbour Azhar, again focusing on the issue of children was at least very moving. This wasn’t a terrible book.  It kept me going over some severe turbulence as I was flying across the Alps yesterday. But I think Elizabeth George needs to strip back her writing and get back to basics.

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37 thoughts on “Review: Elizabeth George – Believing the Lie

  1. Nice review but you haven’t convinced me to have a go. After reading all her books in order, with decreasing interest I might add for the last 2 or 3, I waded through the turgid CARELESS IN RED and said “that’s enough”. I haven’t missed the characters as much as I thought I might, certainly not enough to have another go. The woman needs to be edited strongly and/or head in a completely new direction for me to try again.

  2. Sarah – Thanks for the fine review. I have to say I agree with you completely about George, although I confess I haven’t read this one. I was hoping it might be a “re-breakthrough” if there is such a thing. Well, it is good to hear that Havers gets some “air time.” She’s my favourite character in that series.

  3. Great review, Sarah, it is a very helpful summary as I am still on the fence about her. Like you I have read all this series (they were better at the start when they were shorter!) and though they don’t reflect real England I liked the combination of human emotional dilemma with the crime aspect. In particular I thought the treatment of Deborah’s inability to have a child in Missing Joseph was extremely well done, I have reason to believe in its accuracy.
    Nevertheless I think her books have become very bloated and turgid, apart from Barbara Havers. The whole concept of the amateur forensic detective consulted by Lord Lynley of the yard is just so silly yet she persists with it. I also hate the way all the characters are so cringingly grateful whenever Lynley is polite to them, as if he is a superior being by right of his peerage.

    I was plugging on with them though, depsite their terminal slowness, until What Came Before He Shot Her which I had to finish as I was being paid to review it – oh dear! Dreadful book (I think we slightly disagree on it!). The next one, set in Cornwall, had at its heart a neat little mystery but why was it bloated out from its natural 250 pages into about 650? And the next one, which used the James Bulger killing as a fictional premise, was both bloated and tasteless (agree on the Isabelle character). So —- I had decided not to read any more. But every time I decide that I find myself reading the next one….

    • The early books were so good that I really do give this writer more leeway than I otherwise would. But you do have to call a halt at some point and this may well be it for me.

  4. I have to agree with the “bigger is not necessarily better” comments. It’s getting hard to remember the days when great crime novels were published that were only two hundred pages or so (look how short Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View is by today’s standards). I’ve learned to accept 400, 500 page crime novels (and some of the really do justify the length), but when we’re getting to 600, 700, 800 page ones, I don’t know. It’s like we’ve brought back the triple-decker Victorian novel, 150 years later. Simply as a matter of time, it’s a problem, I’ll admit. And, I agree, such books usually seem like they could do with a good bit of editing (which publishers don’t seem to bother with anymore). When you have limited space you have to learn how to write tight, which I think often is good in a crime novel, which should move.

    • I think early Ruth Rendell (and Agatha Christie in general) are very short books by today’s standards. And I love shorter fiction as it encapsulates for me the essence of the crime genre. I don’t think Sandinavian crime fiction is necessarily long (with the notable exception of Steig Larsson). I wonder if the trend is UK/US led.

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    • Louise Penny has surpassed other mystery writers in my opinion. Strong characters, plot and she really does her research. I remember the stories long after I have turned the last page. Only problem and I crave the next one so.

  6. While I disagree with the write off of Careless in Red, I am finding it strange that George’s novels aren’t edited. I don’t recall which novel it was, but I do remember that one went on–and on!–after it was finished, for another chapter or two. I am now reading Believing the Lie and I was very irritated that I had to wait for about 100 pages before the action actually began. The story does not begin, as I would have preferred, with Lynley going off to Cumbria on a strange assignment. To my way of thinking, the book would have been stronger without any mention of Zed, the hapless journalist.

    I speculate about the decisions made. Maybe George is trying to shrug off the genre and write a “real” novel? Maybe she is trying to expand the dimensions of the mystery novel?

    I carp and complain, but know that when she comes out with a new novel, I will no doubt fall on it as i did this 600+ tome, and no doubt carp some more. Because, somewhere around page 179 I felt she hit her stride and I settled down to enjoy all those characters and more especially her descriptions of place.

    • Thanks Patty. I certainly got the feeling in early George books that she was pushing the boundaries of the genre but I don’t feel this any longer. I, like you, have read every one of her books which have just got longer and longer. I’m hoping for a return to form soon.

  7. Just finished this one. I’ve read all the E. George books and loved them up and until the death of Helen. I’ve read and liked the ones since, but with decreasing interest. I have never liked Isabelle. However this book ranks at the bottom for me. Overlong, unlikable characters, frustrating mystery/crime – or non-mystery/crime as it turns out. But the kicker on this was Deborah. Her obstinance and what takes place because of her obstinance are too much to be believed. And the fact that neither Lynley or Simon called her out on it after the fact was pretty awful. Lynley tries to assuage her guilt and Simon barely brings it up!! The whole book just felt over the top all the way around. I like Barbara and Azhar. The next book direction seems pretty clear, but I’m at the “check it out of the library when I get to it” point, as opposed to “run to the store and buy the hardback” point and that makes me sad. She’s a great writer, I think, and I’ve read and re-read all her books. It seemed that she thought the Helen death angle would shake up the series, but what it’s really done for me is allowed the stories to meander wildly. Helen/Lynley’s relationship added a constant and a structure to the narrative that the books after her death lack. It’s all just a jumbled chaos with nothing drawing it together.

    • Thanks Cathy. Yes I agree everything changed with the death of Helen. Libraries are a godsend when it some to authors who are having a permanent or temporary dip in their quality. You don’t feel guilty at having wasted your money on a poor book.

    • Cathy, you have hit on another huge dissatisfaction I had with George’s latest book, which is two pronged. I feel, first of all, that Deborah’s obstinacy, as you rightly describe it, was very much out of character for her. I felt that I knew those base characters. Now they seem to be shifting, like a reflection in water. And the other thing I found annoying with this book was the highly unlikely and weird irrational obstinacy of nearly every female character. Insufferable, to have Deborah arguing wildly and unreasonably, while like Gods, Lynley and Simon humor her.

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  9. Thanks for the review. I heard about this book when it was reviewed by Elaine Charles on her radio show (http://www.bookreportradio.com)
    A number of the reviews that I have seen have made the point that the books are not as good as they used to be. I think that I will try one of the earlier ones first

    • Thanks Arnold for dropping by. I have heard a few mentions of Elaine Charles’s programme but haven’t caught up with it yet. I recommend you start with George’s early books that are very good indeed.

  10. I just returned “Believing the Lie” to my local library, after finishing it yesterday in extreme disappointment. Sarah’s review and the comments posted here echoed everything I thought and felt and made me less furious. Thank you all so much. One of the things I love in authors like Elizabeth George and Donna Leon is that we get to know the cast of characters and want them to reappear. I love Lynley, his mother, and Havers — also Nkata, Azhar and his little girl. Helen always seemed liked a cipher to me, and I lost no sleep over her demise, but now Deborah St. James has been portrayed as an idiot. We’re well rid of Isabelle Ardery’s romantic involvement with Lynley, but what a tortured ending, with the sympathetic Alatea dying in quicksand, Nick left hopeless, and the mother of Azhar’s beloved little girl absconding with her! I hope E. George reads the comments here and takes them to heart.

    • Thanks Elizabeth for stopping by and commenting. I’ve read very few complimentary reviews of this book so as you say, if George is listening to her readers she will take note. On another subject, I’ve not read any Donna Leon but would like to read some in the near future.

  11. I’m grateful to have found this blog. I returned “Believing the Lie” to my local library today, greatly disappointed, and wondering what went wrong with Elizabeth George. My reactions line up exactly with the comments here. Ms. George really went off the track this time. So many disappointments in character and plot.

  12. I was very disappointed in Believing the Lie. I was so excited to read such a thick book. I found myself bored with it. I agree there was too much going on and no crime. I hope Elizabeth will go back to writing the kind of stories we know and love. If it wasn’t for seeing what happens to the main characters I would have returned it to the library.

    • Thanks Jan for stopping by and commenting. I agree (as you probably can see) with your comments and I suspect I won’t be reading any more of Elizabeth George’s books. I feel that the series has run its course.

  13. I just finished reading the last book ” Believing the Lie” and as other readers have stated, I have followed each of E.G.’s books in order over the years. Her writing grabs my attention, especially descriptions of places and people as if you are actually there with these real characters. There were no less than 3 places throughout this book where I found myself gasping at the turn of events, true surprises and twists that makes me keep going back to her books. I found no boring moments, and I love her use of dialogue. I did find however that given the chance, I would have “strangled” Deborah St. James for being such a stubborn twit and basically driving the woman she pursued, to her death. In previous books, Deborah’s character seemed rather benign but now I see here as a bit of a manic and unsettling force. I will keep watching for E.G.’s next novel with relish!

    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting.It goes to show that we all like different books and that we stop reading series at different points. Glad you enjoyed the book.

  14. Have just read a couple of books by Ms. George – I have to say, she can write . . . and write and write. I consider her rather self-indulgent, a bit of a show-off, in the way she throws unfamiliar words into her writing when familiar ones would carry the same meaning. I also think she creates too many characters and plot threads – again it seems to me like a kind of showing off. But I’m going to sample a couple more of her books, just to see if I can figure HER out. I don’t know anything about her history, perhaps she has something to prove to someone?

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jane. I used to love Elizabeth George and some of the early books in the series are very good. To be honest, I’ve stopped reading her but I think she does still have a loyal following.

  15. Am about 2/3 of the way through Just One Evil Act and it’s all I can do to continue. I’ll finish it because I hate to give up now and I want to have my suspicions confirmed or blown up, but dear Lord, how this woman can pad. George seems to be literally losing the plot. Many of the threads don’t amplify plot at all, and too many actions seem out of character or downright improbable. In his obsession with a vet-cum-roller-derby-queen, Lynley seems ridiculous and an object of pathos. Also, some of George’s sentences are so poorly written I’m astounded they got by the editor. IS there an editor? Was there nobody to say, uhh, Elizabeth, most of your readers probably don’t read Italian, so you might not want to be inserting quite so much of it without translation? Some of the Italian dialogue is important to comprehending the action. Sure, if you know a bit of French and Spanish you can infer a lot of it, but for other exchanges you need a dictionary, and I didn’t figure I’d need an Italian dictionary to understand a supposedly English novel. Is she showing off or . . . .?

    And if she doesn’t stop traumatizing Hadiyyah Upman, the poor kid is going to end up as a murderer three or four books from now.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. To be honest, I’ve given up reading Elizabeth George now. I’m sure there are people who will be buy her books anyway but I agree about the lack of editing. I find a lot of books have too much padding but this one was ridiculous.

  16. Very disappointed – skipped many pages towards the end, just to get it over with. And this has been one of my favourite writers and I loved the stories, before she felt the need to kill off Helen. I can understand if she felt tied down with the characters and needed new approaches, but I was so happy to see Lynley and Havers back! (I had given up after ‘what came before …’) It made the disappointment stronger, since they were not back, not really.

    It was too complicated and also boring with the details and the repeating of themes. EG was never tedious like this. I could not invest in any of the characters this time. Always loved Deborah and Simon, but hated them in this book, esp. Deb. Had hoped she would be justified in the end by some actual mystery she alone had unraveled (show those boys, Deb!), but as soon as she went to apologize and the consequences were clear I felt very let down. This was character murder, compared to who she was in Missing Joseph.
    Lynley was unbelievable with that woman who was his boss; and she was most definitely unbelievable. For shame to introduce a woman in a powerful position and turn her into a needy, obnoxious and busy-body kind of female. She was dreadful!
    Havers was the only one I more or less recognized, but her bowing to others concerning her looks was terrible and uncharacteristic. And what was up with the once wonderful Ms Harriman – didn’t she used to be a trusted ally and now she is a tell-tale and mostly concerned with clothes and make-up?

    Had a hard time with the pedo/porn plot – found the development of Tim quite sickening and as the main theme was the death of his father and the motives and weird relationships within the family it felt like it was too much; same with the dreadful mother Niamh, the weird twin sister, the infidelity with a ‘love child’. And what was the reason to create a back story for the journalist – who was a bland figure to begin with? No character felt ever life-like. EG just put too much darkness and inescapable deformity in all the subplots and it left me wondering what she had hoped to achieve or which point she wanted to make.

    At her best in my view she was able to create multiple layers with a relatively simple plot, showing various sides to persons and their relationships, always allowing for humor and irony. Here she only had some comic relief at the end, where Denton was able to inject himself in the story. But by then it was too late for me.

    • Thanks for the comment. I used to love George but I have her latest book on my shelf and I’m not sure if I’ll read it. I feel that they were never the same after Helen died and that they could do with more extensive editing. there are some other very good crime writers out there.

  17. I absolutely have detested Isabelle Ardery and I can not understand why an obviously intelligent, savvy, successful writer like George would make her hero, Lynley look like a spineless fool by not only supporting her but wanting to be involved with her. I am in the process of reading Believing The Lie and I’m pleased to hear that Isabelle has been left behind but disheartened that Deborah will again be behaving in irrational ways. Honestly, how long can George expect her readers to suspend disbelief? and why? It is one thing to surprise readers. It is entirely another to betray them by having her characters behave in ways which she herself has developed them to not be like. (not a good sentence but I hope you get my meaning) It seems to me that she has come to dislike Lynley and Deborah to portray them so. It’s not that I don’t want her characters to evolve. I would just like some believable consistencies. Which, by the way, she manages with Havers so why not the others? And what are we to do about it? Her interviews show George as very pleased with herself and the literary reviews have declared her brilliant, yet again. Perhaps the only answer is to stop reading her. If so, hhat a shame

    • I completely agree with your comments, Sarah. I have George’s latest book and am unlikely to read it as there is so much better new crime fiction being written. An example of a series that has lost its way, I think.

  18. Amiche again here, Just finished ‘Just one evil act’ and it was ‘unputdownable’ like I remembered from her earlier books. This time she messed with Barbara and Azhar in sometimes questionable ways, but she kept the plot fairly simple and at least believable. The pace was good, the new characters interesting (even when charicatural at times) and even with Isabelle at the helm and as toe-curling as before it was acceptable fare. Lynley might be getting into a new relationship, which was satisfactory on the one hand, but questionable on the other. It’s as if the DI has no other function anymore than to be a sad widower getting hooked up with strange women? At least the part where he was involved in the main plot he was more or less policing again, but never as in command as how we loved him. EG definitely demoted him, so she must really dislike him.

    If it hadn’t been for the cliffhanger of ‘Believing the lie’ and reading on the back this book was a follow-up, I would not have bought it. I am pleased it was not a waste of money and have a little hope that EG might get over what happened to her before and return to what she is good at.
    One little nag is on how the plot was finalised, esp. how the Met was dealt with. Characters (in- and outside the Met) were left unpunished and others were put in the clear by a new construct, which went all a little too fast and too smooth for my liking. Throughout the book I felt she had painted herself in a corner there and I kept wondering how she would deal with that, unless she actually tried to ‘kill off’ all the characters now. She did restore the future of all of them, but she def. used a deus ex machina for that. I forgive her 🙂

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