Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her

What Came Before He Shot Her is a good idea: a “whydunnit,” as one of the reviewers’ blurbs calls it, the backstory of the 12-year-old boy arrested near the end of With No One as Witness for the shooting of Inspector Lynley’s pregnant wife Helen. However, it is not, in the end, a very good novel. Its story is moderately compelling: knowing, as we do, more or less how it ends (or thinking we do–note the tell-tale “apparently” on the back cover), there’s still some interest in seeing how we get there, George’s characters are varied and carefully individualized, and many of the situations she imagines for them are full of pathos. But the book is primarily a treatise in criminology or sociology–a dramatization of George’s understanding of what forces would compel a young kid to commit a horrible, and horribly random, murder. In her concern to cover the many failings in “the system,” she seems to have let her literary sensibilities lapse almost completely. Particularly jarring to me was the dissociation between the narrating voice and the characters’ perspectives. Of course, it is legitimate to incorporate commentary that comes from outside “story space” and offers insights not available to those acting out the drama. But too often here the comments have no bearing on the unfolding catastrophe, belonging to nobody in particular, as when one character gets a cell-phone, described intrusively as “the late-twentieth-century’s most irritating electronic device” (183). Too often, as well, the narration sounds like it is excerpted from a textbook: Ness has “fallen through the cracks” at her school, for instance (62), or a counsellor does not realize that to her clients, she appears as “an adversary incapable of relating to a single element of their lives” (604). To Ness, the overheard sounds of her aunt having sex “comprised auditory torture, a blatant statement about love, desire, and acceptance, a form of imprimatur upon her aunt’s desirability and worthiness” (330); later Kendra’s emotional turmoil is summed up as “an amalgamation of the physical and emotional in a pitched battle with the psychological” (349). “In a society in which handguns had once been virtually nonexistent among the thieving and murdering clsses, they were now becoming disturbingly prevalent. That this was a direct result of the easing of borders that came along with European unification–which was, to some, just another term for opening one’s arms to smuggling into the country everything from cigarettes to explosives–could have been mooted forever, and Sergeant Starr had not time for such mooting” (367)–we get it, here and everywhere–the author has been doing homework. But for me, at least, there’s too much evidence of it here, too much the tone and attitude of a case study. The story of Joel’s descent into crime is superficially plausible, but evaluating it requires someone with social science, not literary training. And don’t even get me started on the fact that really, we are given 707 pages of “whydunnit” for the wrong “whodunnit” anyway…

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