Elizabeth’s Message to Readers

     It was from my longtime cold reader that I had my earliest indication that my thirteenth novel With No One as Witness had the potential to touch my worldwide readers on a deep and emotional level. When Susan had completed her reading of the second draft of the novel, the first thing she told me was that, when she reached the death of Thomas Lynley’s wife, she had to set the novel aside for several days before she could bear to go on. I understood her reaction as she’d long made it clear to me that Helen was her favorite character. My second cold reader, who read the third draft of the novel, had much the same reaction. Both Susan and Mims, however, made it clear that they were on board to see what was going to happen next in the life of Thomas Lynley although they did want to know why I had made the decision to eliminate one of my five central cast members and to do so in such a brutal and unexpected manner. Because this is a question that I encountered often on my national book tour—both for With No One as Witness and for the follow-up novel to it, What Came Before He Shot Her—I want to give readers who perhaps did not have the ability or opportunity to come to one of my book signings in the US, England, Germany, and Austria the chance to read a bit about the process I went through to make the decision to eliminate Helen.

     To understand that decision, the first thing you need to consider is the two alternatives available to a writer when she decides to create a series that features continuing characters. A series like this can be approached by freezing the characters in time, place, and circumstance. Or it can be approached by allowing the characters to grow, change, develop, and move through time. Characters who have been frozen in time, place, and circumstance are best exemplified by Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes (with the obvious exception of that trip over the waterfall), and Dr. Watson. More simplistically, perhaps, Nancy Drew is frozen in time, place, and circumstance, eternally that seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl in the roadster that became a sports car. Language changes. Nancy does not.

     On the other hand, characters who are not frozen in time, place, and circumstance but who move forward, growing, changing, and developing can be found in books like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, as well as the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books.

     When a writer is doing a crime series and the continuing characters are frozen in time, place, and circumstance, the reader’s focus is almost exclusively on the puzzle: the crime and its solution. Thus the reading experience is all about correctly deciding “whodunit” before the writer reveals the answer. Taking up this kind of novel, the reader isn’t asked to engage deeply with the characters but rather to be a participant in a mental game with the author. Consequently, most people are not reading Agatha Christie to learn more about Hercule Poirot’s life or Miss Marple’s life. Poirot and Miss Marple do not change from one novel to the next; nothing in their lives changes; they are sleuths who take the reader on a journey through a crime. Additionally, the reader isn’t asked to care particularly for the dead person or the suspects in this kind of novel, which is generally read for a diversion and not for a soul-clawing or soul-enriching experience.

     Unfortunately, with a large cast of characters who, based on the writer’s decision, are not going to change at all, the writer runs the risk of creating what I call “the obligatory scene.” What this means is that the writer begins to feel that, say, Aunt Maria Lucia—who was introduced in the first novel as a woman who is a great Italian cook and a sympathetic listener with a sense of humor, a harelip, an overbite and, alas, exophthalmic eyes—has to appear in every novel, cooking great Italian meals, making ribald comments, and listening sympathetically. So the writer trots her out in every novel, no matter if her presence is called for by the storyline or not. The problem here is that the writer is going to run out of Italian recipes and ribald comments for poor Aunt Maria Lucia eventually and, if and when that happens after a few years, the character herself is going to become as tired and lifeless as her oil pizza.

     On the other hand, when the main characters are not frozen in time, place, and circumstance, the reader is given a lot more to deal with and care about. The writer endeavors to make the sleuths real people undergoing a real human experience. The writer also attempts to bring to full life the characters most intimately affected by the crime, beyond the continuing characters. These novels are about character. They may be puzzles as well, but the puzzle is not the writer’s primary consideration in putting them together.

     Early on and prior to writing my very first attempt at the British crime novel, I made the decision to create that second kind of series, allowing my characters to grow and change through time. I did this for one reason only: I like to write the kinds of books that I like to read. I don’t personally enjoy reading books that are merely puzzles, in which I’m not asked to care about the characters. Nor do I much like to read plot-driven novels such as The DaVinci Code. Rather, I like my reading experience to expose me to people in their misery, their happiness, their trials, and their triumphs. These are characters who reflect what William Faulkner once said all characters should reflect: the human heart in conflict.

     Now, having embarked on a series in which the characters do not remain static in any respect, the writer has to make certain that every change she brings about in her novels is a change that opens the story up, not one that closes the story down. Soap opera writers have understood this concept forever: When John and Mary—after an agonizing seven-year courtship—finally seal the deal, you can depend upon something coming up fairly soon to destroy their marital bliss. A long lost spouse previously declared dead will reappear. An illegitimate child previously kept as a deep dark secret will knock on the door. Someone will be hit by a truck. Someone will get or recover from amnesia, hysterical paralysis or blindness. Someone will be struck down by a lingering and ultimately fatal disease. You name it. It doesn’t matter. It will happen. And it will happen because, whatever it is, it serves to open the story up again.

     For perhaps the six years preceding the creation of With No One as Witness, I knew that Helen Clyde—as I’ve always referred to her—was going to die. When asked at book signings if I would ever get rid of one of my characters, I always answered honestly, saying, “Yes. One of these characters is scheduled to die.” But I was seeking the vehicle for that death, and the vehicle had to be a novel whose theme supported not only the crime story but also the story of Lynley’s grievous loss. When I began plotting With No One as Witness, I knew I had my vehicle. I knew it was unlikely to be a popular move, but I also knew it was artistically appropriate.

     Why? The answer is simple. Helen’s death, unlike the death of any other character, had the potential to affect more greatly the characters left alive. Her death was like a hand grenade thrown into their midst: The aftermath allowed me myriad story lines to pick up on, based upon the devastating impact of this crime on the other characters. No other death would have done that for me. As I looked at it, no other death would have come close.

     People have asked me why I chose to kill her in such a brutal senseless fashion. The answer to that is simple: because that is how people die all the time. In London. In New York. In Los Angeles. In Washington D.C. Across the globe. They are in the right place—at home, at work, in a restaurant, on the beach, in a shopping mall, on the underground—at the worst possible time. British television personality Jill Dando was killed in just such a fashion, right on her own front step in an ordinary neighborhood in London. Just this last December, an attorney in the prime of life was murdered—for no reason—as he emerged from Kensal Green tube station. A number of years ago two-year-old James Bulger was taken from a shopping center in the Midlands of England by two ten-year-old boys and brutally tortured and murdered, his body left on the railway tracks to be sliced in half by an oncoming train. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that happens in our world, and from the beginning of my career, I have wanted my novels to reflect our world.

     Readers may say, “Well, I don’t read to be exposed to what’s going on in our world! I read to escape.” And to that reader, I must say with some regret, “You will have to read someone else’s novels.” For from the very first, my novels have always dealt with weighty topics: incest, betrayal of country, pornography, schoolyard bullying, illegitimate birth, arranged marriage, drug use, prostitution, sadomasochism, etc. There is no point to writing at all, I believe, if my novels do not make an attempt to portray the world is it actually is.

     Readers may then ask, “Don’t you care about us? Don’t you care about what we want to read?” And I would have to answer that question in this way: If I concentrated only on what I thought the reader wanted to read, I would second-guess myself every step of the way and I would end up writing to a formula. It would go like this: My character Barbara Havers is well-loved as is Lynley; readers want to see these two characters solve crimes. Ergo, I will devise one novel after another featuring them. Thinking in that fashion, I would be afraid that if I did anything else, the reader wouldn’t buy my books. Also thinking in that fashion, however, I would eventually run out of steam cranking out Lynley and Havers time and again, with no deviation and, more important, with no opportunity for me to expose the reader to a greater world and to expose myself to a greater artistic challenge. The very heart would go out of the writing for me. And the books would lie there inertly, without life or passion.

     All of this brings me back, ineluctably, to the death of Helen Clyde. The literary philosophy I have always adhered to is this: When a writer writes, as John Steinbeck put it so eloquently, he seeks to form a trinity, and this trinity exists only when the work, the writer, and the reader are joined together. It is a communion of sorts, in which the reader is invited into a world created by writer and is asked to feel something about that world and the people in it. That is the purpose of novels. On one level, of course, novels do entertain and divert. But on another, deeper level, they move. In creating the scenes leading up to Helen Clyde’s death in With No One as Witness, I sought to place the reader in a position not dissimilar to Lynley’s own. My purpose in this was to have the reader feel—if only marginally—something of what Lynley felt when he had to authorize the termination of life support for his wife and their son. Had the reader completed the novel, tossed it to one side, yawned, and walked into the kitchen for a beer and a bologna sandwich, the novel would have failed in its purpose. There would have been no trinity. But the reader didn’t do that. The reader cared. The reader wept. The reader raged. These reactions spoke to the fact that the novel succeeded in doing what novels have always been intended to do.

     People have asked me: Were you prepared for the backlash from your readers? And to this I have to say no. While I knew that the novel would affect people—based, as I said earlier, on the reactions of my cold readers—I did not know how they would express themselves in the midst of their reaction to it. Nor did I know that people would not be able to process through their feelings to arrive at the point of recognizing the power of words to move them before they gave voice to their initial reactions.

     I received many different kinds of letters from people coming from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Some of them railed at me furiously; some of them said brava to a job well done. Some of the writers of the letters understood what I was attempting to do; some did not care about anything other than the fact that Helen Clyde was dead, at my hands, and they themselves—like Lynley—were in turmoil over it.

     In the novel that followed—What Came Before He Shot Her—I wanted to take a step away from Helen’s death and to view it from another direction entirely. In creating this novel, I knew that I was doing something that might be considered controversial by my readers because I was excluding from the book all of the main characters, giving only a cameo appearance to Winston Nkata and Barbara Havers in the final scenes. But I wanted to accomplish two objectives with that novel. I wanted to back up in time and turn the prism of Helen’s death so that the reader could see the events that led up to it, putting the reader in the position of knowing more than the police will ever know about the crime. I also wanted to challenge the reader to care as much about Joel Campbell as the reader cared about Helen Clyde, in whose killing Joel was a participant.

     Initially, Joel’s story was part of the earlier novel, With No One as Witness, and my intention was to create his story as part of an hour-glass plot structure. But as I wrote it, I began to see that his was a much larger tale than could be told in a subplot of that book. Indeed, I saw that the social, cultural, emotional, familial, and psychological issues Joel was trying to cope with could not be adequately dealt with without making With No One as Witness over 1500 pages long. This seemed too long to me, putting the reader under an enormous burden of remembering thirty or more characters. So I removed his entire subplot and when it was time to write the novel that followed With No One as Witness, Joel’s story was the one I wanted to tell.

     I’ve been largely gratified by the response to this novel. Anytime a writer deviates from the norm—the norm being what that writer “usually” writes—it’s a scary thing. One doesn’t know how booksellers, readers, one’s editors, or the critics are going to react to such deviation. The fact that some readers have chosen not to read it because it’s “not about Lynley and Havers” saddens me, true. But I have been otherwise thrilled by the manner in which the novel has been embraced by other readers, by my publishers, my colleagues, and critics as well. To see it appear on Best Novels of 2006 lists…That has been a wonderful experience, assuring me that sometimes a risk is worth it.

     Lynley returns in the next novel, Careless in Red, which I hope will also be embraced by readers. It is some weeks after Helen’s death, and he is in Cornwall, where he’s gone in an attempt to put his life back together. In going to Cornwall, it’s his intention never to be a police detective again. But things do not work out quite the way he intends them. Just like life itself.

Whidbey Island, Washington
14 February 2007

Return to top


Site Copyright 2020 Elizabeth George
Site Designed and Maintained by
Dovetail Studio