Napsbury Hospital is an unsettling place at the best of times. An imposing, now empty, grey-stoned building near St Albans, it was once the most notorious lunatic asylum in the country. Silhouetted against a livid, leaden sky on an autumn morning, it looks even more sinister than usual - an institution straight from the pages of Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker.
Yet, huddled beneath an umbrella as the rain lashes down, Elizabeth George confesses she is in her element. 'I love this piece,' she says, with a thin, mortician's smile. Moments later, exploring the vast, vaulted corridors of the hospital, which once contained the criminally insane, the excited light in her eyes could lift the Gothic gloom on its own.
The relish she displays is hardly surprising. The American novelist has sold millions of novels by tapping into the darkest and most disturbing facets of human nature. Places like this are meat and drink to her as she researches her meticulously constructed thrillers. And there is every reason for her to wear a smile of extra satisfaction today. In one wing of the hospital, the fictional detective duo she created 15 years ago is being brought to life by the BBC.
From her base in Huntington Beech, California, George has written eight novels featuring the unlikely team of Lord Asherton, aka Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of New Scotland Yard, and his partner, Sergeant Barbara Havers. The first of them, A Great Deliverance (Bantam, £5.99), is being shot, here at Napsbury, with Nathaniel Parker in the role of the aristocratic Lynley and Sharon Small as the resolutely working-class Havers. There is already whispered talk of Havers and Lynley becoming to the new millennium what Morse end Lewis and Dalziel and Pascoe were to the Eighties and Nineties.
As she watches Parker and Small playing out a scene, George admits to a curious cocktail of emotions. 'It is a combination of exciting and odd. The odd part comes from seeing people walking into the roles of my characters. I have always had a very strong visual image not only of what these people look like but what they sound like, too. So to have anyone become one of them is a bit of a shock.'
At first sight, George seems too demure to be writing tales of twisted killers and dismembered bodies. A petite, porcelain-delicate figure, with a shock of russety-red hair, she speaks in precise, polished sentences. The more she reveals of herself, however, the clearer it becomes that she was born to be a crime novelist.
George was raised in the San Francisco Bay area of California, where her father worked for a conveyor-belt company. While others were reading comic books or tales of fairy princesses, she was scouring the Son Francisco Examiner for crime stories, the stranger the batten 'I remember reading about the Queen of Angels school in Boston,' she says, another disconcerting smile breaking across her face. 'A fire broke out and all the kids were killed because instead of trying to help them escape the nuns kept them sitting at their desks, waiting to be rescued. They died of smoke inhalation. When the firemen went into the school, all the kids were sitting there with their heads on their desks, and the nuns sitting at the heads of the classes with their heads on their desks. I was 10 years old at the time and I've never forgotten it.'
She concedes her interest in the abnormal may have been a reaction to the comfortable, middle-class normality of her upbringing. 'It was not a place with any weird, deviant skeletons in the closet, no,' she says of the neighbourhood in which she grew up. 'I remember once on the front page of the paper there was a story of teenagers who had been locked in a closet all their lives. I remember looking at that and being horrified at these skeletal figures. There was nothing like that in my neighborhood. It did fire the imagination. You really asked the question, "What kind of people do these things?" Since then I have always found not only crime but deviancy fascinating.'
By the age of seven she had begun composing her own stories. 'My parents used to jokingly call me their own Louisa May Alcott.' By the time she was eight she had her first typewritten By 12 she had completed her first novel. 'It was called
The Mystery Of Horseshoe Lake and it was about a counterfeiting gang caught by a very clever 16-year-old girl not unlike Nancy Drew from the Nancy Drew mysteries.'
Even in her teens, her fascination with writing took precedence over everything. 'I wasn't the sort of child who did the normal things kids do as teenagers, going out and dating. I was much more interested in writing,' she says. Though she became a teacher, she could not resist the writing bug. By her 20s - married to her then husband, Ira Toibin - she had decided to begin writing murder-mystery novels.
George's enduring love affair with England began in 1966, when she came here on a summer Shakespeare course. 'It was really Swinging London. I can remember walking down Carnaby Street and thinking it was amazing,' she says. To her it was only natural that she should set her stories in England. 'The odd thing is that I never considered placing them anywhere else.'
George had to write six novels before finding a publisher willing to take a gamble on her. 'I would call it a journey of love rather than exasperation or depression,' she says of her struggle, 'because I really love writing and I believe that's the most important thing.'
Since the publication of A Great Deliverance, however, her progress has been steady. Today her books are published in 20 languages and regularly sell a million copies. Her Lynley and Havers mysteries have become known for the psychological intricacy of her characters, the subtleties of her plots and the sheer mass of research that has gone into them. 'I am really unwilling to write about something unless I know what I am talking about,' she says. Writing each book always includes two or three trips to England, where she now keeps a flat in South Kensington in London. 'I photograph everything, carry a tape recorder and record my impressions of everything I see,' she explains. Her novels have been set in such diverse locations as an English public school and the Yorkshire moors.
'When I decided to place a story in an English public school I went to six of them and spent time there interviewing head-masters, senior prefects, head boys, gardeners, anyone,' she says. 'I wanted to become as conversant as I could with the public-school system. And then, when I went home, I created my own public school and wrote my own brochure for people who might want to send their children there. I then created it architecturally so in the end I knew where the dining room was, where the chapel was and where each house was. I'm a details person and I really want to be right. If you haven't got it right you will get 100 letters telling you you haven't.'
The fact that she lives 5,000 miles from England still surprises her readers and offends the occasional critic. 'There are two groups who question my right to do it: one are British literary critics and the other are British crime writers, because I'm invading their turf" she says, unfazed. 'But, as far as readers go, the general reaction is that they can't believe I'm American.
'I had several letters from men who had been to public school here expressing amazement that a woman, and an American woman at that, had been able to write about an English boys' school and capture the essence of what went on there.'
Her devotion to writing has claimed a personal price, however. Her marriage to Toibin ended in 1995, after 24 years. It is a measure of the terms on which they parted that Toibin remains her business manager. If she has made personal sacrifices in pursuit of professional success, George bears no sense of regret over them. 'From the word go I was never a strongly maternal creature. I have always been of the belief that just because you have the parts doesn't mean you have to use the parts,' she says. 'I was aware early on that I probably would not have been a very good mother.' Friends fill the void left by her lack of family. 'When you don't have children and you don't have any immediate family in the area - which I don't - I think you develop closer and more enduring relationships,' she says.
Tellingly, though, she admits she has made adjustments recently. 'What I've started to do is not write to the exclusion of the rest of my life.' With the BBC series set to raise her profile further, her career is entering a new phase. Yet, whatever the fate of Lynley and Havers on television, there is little doubt writing will remain the centre of her life. Even now, she says, she is unhappy when not in the grip of an idea - 'I'm happiest and most balanced when I'm in a creative mode.'
As we return to the film set, it is obvious her imagination is slipping into overdrive once more, taking in every macabre detail of the place. It is an even-money bet the location will crop up in some future Elizabeth George mystery. We part company as she heads off down a poorly lit alleyway, unsure exactly where she is heading. There is a noticeable spring in her step as she fades from view.
A Great Deliverance was premiered on BBC1 in 2001.
This article originally
appeared in the January, 2001 issue of Sainsbury's Magazine and is copyrighted
by the magazine.