Lynley detective author Elizabeth George speaks about new novel

Elizabeth George
Elizabeth George
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Award-winning American author Elizabeth George has a lot to celebrate, as her popular Thomas Lynley series – featuring the upper crust British Inspector and his working-class sidekick, DS Barbara Havers – reaches its 30th anniversary and 20th book.

“I never anticipated the length of my career as a writer. I’m extremely grateful I’ve been able to maintain that,” says George.

Her latest novel The Punishment She Deserves

Her latest novel The Punishment She Deserves

She and her husband, former firefighter Tom McCabe, have their $5.5m home (set on ten acres in Whidbey Island, Washington State) up for sale, as they want to return to city life in Seattle. And George is looking forward to a break after writing her latest Lynley story, The Punishment She Deserves, in which the detective investigates the death of a local deacon in the medieval town of Ludlow, Shropshire.

George turns 70 next year but she has no intention of retiring. Writing, she says, has in many ways been her saviour, helping her through the deep bouts of depression she’s suffered since she was a teenager. “I’ve always been prone to depression but I discovered that the creative act is a really good way to fight off depression. As long as I stay creative, I don’t get the kind of serious depression that I used to get.”

There wasn’t the awareness there is today about depression when George, the daughter of a conveyor belt businessman and a nurse, was growing up in the San Francisco Bay area.

“I didn’t come from the kind of family that confronted that sort of stuff. My mother told me later in her life that she knew that as a teenager, I was suicidally depressed. I think they were just hoping I wouldn’t do anything about it.

“In those days, you had to power through it. We are talking 1965. They didn’t have the different medications they have now and didn’t understand the chemical imbalances. I had a serotonin imbalance. Now they have all kinds of ways that they fight depression, through medication, though talk therapy and getting involved in activities.

“The depression was like a greased spiral, which would start out as a mild sense of malaise and sadness and get bigger and bigger as I slid down,” she continues. “I would then look around me to see if I could find the cause. For a long time, I blamed it on having to live in southern California.”

She taught English for 13 years, which kept the depression at bay, but she’d be riddled with anxiety at the end of each term, unsure how she was going to get through the summer.

George sought counselling in the Eighties and spent 20 years in psychotherapy, but also got her own master’s degree in counselling and psychology, which she found hugely helpful. Her first Lynley book was published in 1988, A Great Deliverance, introducing readers to the unforgettable detective duo (the books were adapted for a BBC series starring Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small), but it wasn’t until the Nineties that a psychiatrist explained to George the importance of the creative act to the way her mind works.

“He told me that I needed to keep my brain occupied, so it wasn’t in a resting state. In between books, I would get incredibly depressed and didn’t know why. He said that between books I’d have to do something else. I started creative scrapbooking and learning Italian. You can do things to alleviate a great deal of suffering you might otherwise have.”

To this day, writing is vital, she admits, and because she’s so busy and responsible for different things – she runs the Elizabeth George Foundation which gives grants to unpublished, emerging writers – the dark clouds don’t loom very often.

George has been an Anglophile for as long as she can remember, since her first visit to Britain in the summer of 1966. You’d never know from her Lynley series that it was written by an American, as she captures the nuances, class system, language, humour and habits of the British so well.

George also watches British crime dramas to capture more of the idiosyncrasies – and has watched everything from Prime Suspect and Morse to Grantchester and The Fall, and picks up the syntax of British speech through books.

She used to have a flat in London and would visit the UK often, but these days only gets here about once a year. For her latest book, she went to Ludlow and discovered much about police cuts, a fall in response times and the increasing dependence on community support officers. It gave her plenty of scope for a thriller.

In 30 years, there have been some changes to Lynley, but his personality remains much the same. “Lynley has grown and developed as he’s faced challenges, but the person he was in the first book – a man with a boundless source of compassion – is still there.”

So, what’s next for the popular detective? Well, in the last 30 years he has only aged by about eight years, George muses, yet has seamlessly kept up with new technology.

If Lynley were to appear on the screen again, George would rather that each book secured a longer storyline encompassing four to six episodes, to allow the intricacies of relationships and personalities which feature in her novels to shine through, rather than a stand-alone episode just focusing on the crime.

“They ended up using exactly the same format for each episode, which I objected to. At one point, five people had been murdered in one 75-minute show! I commented that we were not doing Hamlet.

“Because the books are a much bigger read than they were depicted on TV, the BBC chose to just focus on the crime itself, but there’s so much more going on in the books. I thought it would be fun for the viewers to be exposed to all those sub-plots.

“I felt that Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small captured the essence of the characters, but I would have loved it if the BBC had done a bigger exploration of the minor characters.”

And her choice of Lynley and Havers actors for future TV adaptations?

“Over time, I’ve seen so many actors who would make good Lynleys, but they always get too famous. Watching Grantchester, I thought, ‘Oh My God, that guy (James Norton) is Lynley – if he hadn’t been the vicar in Grantchester!’

“Or Luke Norris, who played Dwight Enys in Poldark. And Havers? It’s got to be Olivia Colman.”

The Punishment She Deserves by Elizabeth George is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20. Available now.