A Traitor to Memory
by Elizabeth George
Bantam, 722 pp, $26.99
Sept. 5, 2001 – I count myself among the cult of whodunnit fans who find the genre both intriguing and relaxing. British author Elizabeth George's style doesn't exactly fit into this category, even though she has won a number of prestigious international prizes and awards for "suspense fiction." She writes novels that involve a murder (or murders) that serves as a backdrop for the characters to reveal their strengths, failings and other qualities that allow us to judge them.
At 722 pages in the case of "A Traitor to Memory," you can see she is no slouch. Yet there is not one page, not even a word, that is unnecessary, and once you're caught up in her story, you'll find the end coming far too soon.
Gideon Davies, the protagonist, was a child prodigy. He picked up the violin at age 8 and played like an archangel. Now, at 28, he has hit a brick wall. Stymied by a mental or emotional block, he cannot play a note. With concerts, tapings and personal appearances scheduled, this state of affairs throws all close to him into a blue funk.
We enter Gideon's world in the midst of this disaster and sit in on his sessions with this psychiatrist. A "normal" person would have no inkling of how different the life of a child prodigy is, nor of what a jarringly out-of-focus effect it has on those who share this warped world.
Crimes are about to occur, and Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his assistants, Detective Constable Barbara Havers and Police Constable Winston Nkata, enter the picture. Lynley and Havers are well known to Elizabeth George groupies. Lynley has a title (he's an earl) but disdains to use it in this, his chosen field. Several books back, George introduced Nkata, a former London street gang member put back on the straight and narrow.
Gideon's mother, whom he hasn't seen or spoken to for 20 years, is the first victim — killed by a car which backs up and runs over her several times. The story unwinds from there on two tracks. One is in the psychiatrist's office, as Gideon tries to return to the moment in his young life that now has brought his music to a silent halt. The other is at Scotland Yard, where the detectives pursue a winding path seeking to disentangle facts and human behavior and identify the murderer.
The one constant of this thrilling saga is the depth of the characters and the feeling the reader comes to have of knowing — and understanding –each one.
Yasmin, the mother of a 10-year-old son, figures largely as Nkata's investigations progress. Six feet tall, she is physically beautiful except for the scar on her mouth where her husband once hit her with a vase. She killed him in self-defense then served long years in prison for the act. Now, she earns her way by providing wigs for sale or rent to cancer patients who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy.
Danny, her son, has the job of washing the wigs in the bathtub every afternoon, and he's very proud of the good job he does. Nkata likes Yasmin and we get the impression he would like to get to know her. However, her dislike and mistrust of all police limits that desire to Nkata's dreams.
Numerous story lines progress on many levels, taking their turn leaping from the page to meet the reader, and you'll be delighted to return to them, anxious to know what has happened since last you met. This is a book that will absorb your leisure time for a good while. It's adventure filled and beautifully textured throughout. George spins a web of familial intrigue that leaves you wondering and following that magic lantern the storyteller lights to lure the reader.
Gideon and his family are fascinating. One marvels at how a person's values can become so warped, how such weird reasoning can lead an individual to act in such foreign ways. George is astounding, a master of her genre. If you're going there, you may as well go first class.
Editor's note: Source book reviewer Bette Davis, a longtime St. Thomas resident, notes that all of her reviews are favorable for good reason: "Years ago, I adopted the premise that if I was not hooked by page 51, I would close the book and never look at it again. Life's too short, and too many good ones await."