George, Elizabeth. Missing Joseph.

NY: Bantam, 1993.

Since the death of P. D. James, Elizabeth George has become the leading practitioner of the “literary mystery.” She pays at least as much attention to telling the characters’ stories as people as she does to laying out the mystery plot for the consideration of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, belted earl and homicide specialist. Which, since he’s based at Scotland Yard, means he spends a lot of his time intruding on other cops’ turf. But we often don’t even meet Lynley and his crew for a hundred pages or more.

And this sixth volume in the series maintains George’s high standard. The books are getting thicker, too. This one is set in darkest Lancaster, once the site of Britain’s witch-hangings, and there are apparently still quite a few herbalists, Goddess-worshipers, and other suspicious types around. The local vicar, the Rev. Sage, was stirring things up in the village when he’s poisoned one night by being fed nightshade instead of the expected parsnips and dies in great agony. All an accident, of course, or that’s what the local constable decides — but then he’s also emotionally involved with the parsnip-cook, an expert in medicinal and other wild plants who should never have made such a mistake. And the cook seems to be on the run from something, relocating with her adolescent daughter every couple of years from one obscure location in the UK to another.

Lynley’s closest friend, Simon St. James, a noted forensic scientist, is visiting the village with his wife, Deborah, for his own reasons, and becomes suspicious after hearing the story. So, naturally, he calls Scotland Yard, Lynley begins poking into things and asking questions, and the plot quickly becomes much more complex.

The theme this time (because there’s always a theme) is “parents and children,” especially mothers and their daughters, and this extends into the concerns of the investigators as well as of the local people. Deborah used to be Lynley’s lover before she married Simon, just as Helen, with whom Lynley is in love, used to be with Simon. Deborah has been plagued with miscarriages but she won’t consider adoption, which is making things tense for her and Simon. And Helen is edgy about Lynley’s general attitudes toward women, which is keeping her from committing to a permanent relationship there. This side plot gets a bit sloppy at times, to be honest. There’s always something involving angst with these people.

At the same time, Lynley’s sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who is as personally and culturally different from her boss as it’s possible to be, has moved her aging and dementia-addled mother into a small but very nice care facility and appears to be about to take control of her own life for the first time in her life, but she’s also struggling with the guilt.

Anyway, the main story involving the motives behind the murder of the vicar — if it actually was murder — is nicely done and it’s a treat to watch Lynley gather clues and relate them to the present and the past. He’s both intuitive and a proceduralist, with a knack for seeing significance in details that others don’t. A very satisfying series.

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