She’s lived in California for most of her life, but Elizabeth George has been leaving bodies all over the English countryside for almost 25 years. Her best-selling crime novels – featuring the dashingly aristocratic Inspector Lynley – have been adapted into a BBC TV series that has guest-starred the likes of Bill Nighy and James McAvoy, and readers could be forgiven for thinking she must be as British as they come.
In fact a born-and-raised American, Elizabeth George has been an Anglophile for as long as she can remember, since her first visit to Britain in the summer of 1966.
Now, a quarter of a century after her first book was published, the setting of George’s first young adult novel is back on her home turf.
Having ditched the warm California climate to move northwards several years ago, George and her husband, retired firefighter Tom McCabe, now live on the remote southern tip of Whidbey Island, off Seattle – and this has become the backdrop of her new writing direction in The Edge Of Nowhere.
The title kicks off a series of books that sees a 14-year-old girl, Becca King, on the run from her violent stepfather. Put at risk by her ability to hear “whispers” – the thoughts of others – Becca has inadvertently discovered her stepfather’s criminal activities, and takes to the road, leaving her school, house and name behind her. Having planned to stay with an old friend on Whidbey island, when Becca arrives she discovers that the friend has died and she is left to rely on her wits and the kindness of strangers. The teenager is soon befriended by Derric, a Ugandan orphan; Seth, a high school dropout; Debbie, who takes her in, and Diana, with whom Becca shares a mysterious psychic connection.
George, a petite, elegant woman who began her career as an English teacher, explains that the island she has made her home has enough spooky places to create the slightly unnerving atmosphere throughout the story. “There are so many places on Whidbey Island that are marvellously suggestive of plot. The main location of the next book is an area called Possession Point – and it really exists,” she says.
Not a Hollywood story
George, 64, admits that there are times when she gets spooked in the house on her own, surrounded by trees. She could certainly see the island become a setting for a crime series, she notes.
“Oddly enough, in the past year we’ve had a criminal trial that was featured on national television and a bizarre murder on the island.”
But she was keen to stay away from the vampires and werewolves that are so prominent in many young adult novels.
“I wanted the series to be a bit more realistic than a lot of the young adult novels that are gaining popularity right now. My book doesn’t include vampires, werewolves and witches. I wanted it to be about ordinary kids experiencing life’s ordinary problems.”
She’s not sure if her new series could make a screen adaptation. “I think that unfortunately the things they make for kids tend to be more sensational. I’m not sure my series would be the kind of thing that would be considered, especially in Hollywood.”
Although this is her first young-adult book, George says she sees it as an addition to her work and she will continue to write the Inspector Lynley mysteries that
made her name.
The outsider advantage
Born in Ohio, the daughter of a conveyor belt businessman and a nurse, George grew up in San Francisco Bay and began composing short stories when she was seven years old.
She taught English for 13 years before her first Lynley book in 1988, A Great Deliverance, introduced readers to an unforgettable detective duo – upper class Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley and his working class assistant, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who is as gritty as Lynley is polished. Today her books are published in 20 languages and regularly sell a million copies.
George visits the UK for the Lynley research – the action in the next novel takes place in London and Italy and she is currently learning Italian. She also keeps a street map of London tacked to a bulletin board in her study in the US and several books on British slang, grammar and police procedure close at hand, adding that not living in England made it easier for her to craft the Lynley mysteries.
“It’s more difficult to write about the place where I live, because it’s more difficult to see the telling detail that will make that place stand out.
“I see that detail every day where I live, whereas in England I can see something and realise the unusual things that the reader will need
George was initially concerned that the Lynley TV adaptations, which attracted 13 million viewers, would influence her future writing, but that hasn’t happened.
“I was able to watch the performance. They weren’t playing my Lynley and Havers but I thought that what they did was fine. Sharon Small [who played Sergeant Barbara Havers] didn’t look anything like my idea of Havers, but still gave the flavour of the character and she did a good job.”
A prolific author, George has another Lynley mystery, Just One Evil Act, coming out in September and is already working on the third in her young adult series.
George admits she’s pursued a career rather than a family but says she has no regrets about not having children. She has two stepchildren and a goddaughter, but was never maternal, she observes.
“I knew that during my prime childbearing years I would not have been a good mother. I’ve always been a career person.”
She’s contracted to write four books for the young adult series but reckons it will run to six. The second in the series, The Edge of the Water, is already finished and due for publication in January next year.
For now, she continues to immerse herself in her writing. “I wouldn’t kill Lynley off,” she says, “but if I were to end the series I’d do it at a point at which all the continuing characters’ stories had reached completion, and they’d be moving successfully into the future.”