This Body of Death: An Inspector Lynley Novel
“We hear of crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions . . . These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.”
This Body of Death is the sixteenth novel in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, a troubling story that asks vital questions about the nature of a rotten society. Written with George’s characteristic coolness, it is intricately plotted, excellently paced, and utterly terrifying in its depiction of a violence that is almost incomprehensible to the vast majority of us. Ultimately, the novel is a success; however, there is no doubt that George is taking some very real risks because of the fact the story bears such a chilling resemblance to a real crime in the U.K.
On February 12, 1993, two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, abducted the two-year-old James Bulger from the New Strand Shopping Center in Bootle, Liverpool. They proceeded to torture and then murder the child, leaving his broken body on a nearby railway line. Details of the case shocked the nation and scarred hardened police for life.
The grainy CCTV images of the two ten year olds leading James Bulger by the hand out of the shopping center became part of the collective consciousness of the U.K.; an instant image of evil which had similar currency to those black and white images of Myra Hindley, one of the Moors Murderers. That the two killers were ten years old (and Hindley a woman) made the crime even more shocking, even more incomprehensible, revealing a heart of darkness in the country that we’d tried not to acknowledge for a long time.
Even now, the Bulger killing remains a thorny issue, capable of provoking revulsion, horror, and disbelief. Venables and Thompson were released after serving ten years. They were given new identities, new lives, but Venables has recently been sent back down on child pornography charges. Despite the new identity, the media sniffed him out and there was another national outcry. And even more recently, a teenage boy was given two months in prison for claiming on his Facebook page to have seen Thompson working at his local DIY store. It remains such an emotive subject that the storyline to an early evening soap opera was changed at the last minute in order not to offend the Bulger family.
Which brings me back to This Body of Death and its storyline, which features boys abducting a child from a shopping center, leading him away by the hand, and then torturing and eventually killing him. There is no doubt the crime is based on the Bulger killing. George could be accused of intruding on sacred ground, or worse, of rubber necking, but by handling the issue so sensitively, she goes some way toward deflecting any potential criticism coming from the U.K. And she achieves this with her masterful handling of images and motifs interlaced within the text.
This is a novel about recycling. Which might sound strange, but bear with me, and I will explain. It is a novel in which the major clues are found in recycling bins, in which plot and character undergo the recycling process, and finally, it is a novel that asks us whether human beings can be recycled.
In Gordon Jossie, we have an example of a human being with the worst possible start in life, a person who has sinned so grievously at the age of ten that society reckons him irredeemable. In essence, he is a piece of human rubbish. The novel asks: Can a human being really be recycled and allowed back into the community as something other than what he once was? Isn’t he always that same piece of rubbish or can he change, performing a civilized function within society?
Gordon Jossie begins life as a fully paid-up member of Blair’s “society that is becoming unworthy of that name.” He is part of England’s heart of darkness whether he likes it or not; one of the underclass destined for a dark future. And as George observes: “Abused children carry abuse forward through time. This is the unthinkable gift that keeps on giving.” Her writing, especially in the “case notes” sections have a forensic quality. Which is perhaps as a result of being American, and thus slightly removed from the furor as it played out in the U.K. Her fictional England is an excellent representation of the real one. In fact she sets up two Englands: the England of this underclass, as represented by Jossie et al, and the contrasting, rather idealized England of the New Forest, the location of his witness protection style re-housing on his release.
This second England, this one of shops called Cupcake Queen, a place of perambulations and ponies often grates with the English reader. It seems to be populated by kindly yokels who say things like: “Reckon some people have cotton wool up there ’stead of brains.” It is heaven, as opposed to the hell of the underclass sink estates. And perhaps this is why we shouldn’t take George to task for her seeming generalizations; the symbolic value of the two Englands far outweighs any residual feeling of annoyance.
Effectively, Jossie (or Ian Barker in his former incarnation) is hiding out in the New Forest, but events contrive to draw out his old identity. When he is revealed: “Some of the tabloids demanded how people in Hampshire had possibly failed to recognize the bloke, but really, why would they have recognized, in a quiet thatcher, a long-ago child who, they probably suspected, had cloven hooves for feet and horns beneath his schoolboy cap? No one was looking for Ian Barker to be hidden away in Hampshire, anyway, leading an unassuming life.” The press craves such revelations, but George asks us what the ultimate value of such knowledge might be: “Was it supposed to be a cautionary tale? Something to give the Dresser family peace at last? Something to strike fear into Michael Spargo and Reggie Arnold, wherever they were? She didn’t see how releasing Gordon Jossie’s true identity would serve to do any of that.”
Similarly as Venables’ identity was recently revealed when he re-offended: does knowing who he is and what he’s done really help the Bulger family? Nobody, not Elizabeth George, not Inspector Lynley, not Isabelle Ardery, can answer this, but the important thing is to ask the question. To challenge our own assumptions and our apparent complicity with a media which definitely can be accused of rubber necking. George quotes from Shakespeare: “blood will have blood” and there is the very real question of whether the media in general have blood on their hands.
In asking for a deeper analysis of the situation that led the boys to brutally torture and kill a child, George effectively justifies her own role in writing about the crime.
As a character, Inspector Lynley manages to straddle both of George’s Englands. The fact he is an earl moonlighting as a policeman slightly beggars belief and occasionally his speech jars, especially when he says things like: “If you’ll make us a jug of Pimm’s and bring it up here, we should be able to accomplish it by the end of the day.” But he too has been infected by the heart of darkness, his world “utterly transformed in an instant, on the street, at the hands of a child with a gun.” This is a different Lynley than one: “lost in a void, lost to them in ways that were crucial but undefined.”
Nevertheless, despite the fact the book is advertised as “An Inspector Lynley novel,” Lynley remains very much on the periphery. A ghost at the feast. There doesn’t seem enough about him to carry a whole novel, yet alone sixteen of them. And here, perhaps George is betraying a certain weakness in her writing of male characters. In the novel, her men are either devilishly handsome (like Lynley), or ugly like Robbie. Indeed, one is left with the impression that, especially in Robbie’s case, George has quite purposefully made him ugly in order to inspire sympathy. Which doesn’t seem like a very nice thing to do.
There is much more subtlety and shading to George’s female characters, and especially in Barbara Havers and Isabelle Ardery. Ardery is a borderline alcoholic determined to become a success in a hugely male dominated environment. She’s the female Rebus, a troubled character haunted by her past; a woman with so many issues she could become far more than just a member of the supporting cast. Barbara Havers is equally well drawn. When George writes this female character, her voice becomes looser somehow, riskier than when she writes Lynley. Certainly she appears to have far more fun with Barbara and her constant barrage of witty asides like: “She wondered what odd Italian habits might be. Putting tomato sauce on the Weetabix?” And: “She was something of a hoarder . . . which was like declaring that Noah was something of a rowing-boat builder.”
Elizabeth George is a writer with a practiced hand in exploring the ripple effects of a horrific crime. Despite the weaknesses, this is a weighty, issue-driven novel with the guts to ask some difficult questions both of the reader and of society as a whole. And although a better “child criminal released into society’s story has already been written—in the form of the excellent Boy A by the British writer Jonathan Trigell—George’s extended “recycling” metaphor makes reading This Body of Death a hauntingly memorable experience. It is too easy to take the blinkered approach and label child criminals as pure evil; the media often does. But Elizabeth George refuses to take this route, and in Gordon Jossie, she examines a “recycled” man with an craft and artistry which is difficult to deny.