For three decades, the American writer Elizabeth George has demonstrated that she is the ultimate Anglophile, setting her novels in the UK. But she has shown her surprise at the power of the English tabloids and noted that, when she presents their behaviour in outrageous terms, the real-life equivalents will always outdo her fictional versions. The red-tops are central to this latest book, which is George’s War and Peace, at least in terms of length (an imposing 700-odd pages). But this is no mere indulgence, as the author has broadened her range in terms of setting (a vividly drawn Italy) and introduced an intriguing new character, the saturnine Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco. It’s clear, too, that George finds the Italian police and judicial system bizarre. Dropping Inspector Thomas Lynley into this milieu is a clever touch.
While Lynley struggles to deal with the death of his wife, Helen, DS Barbara Havers moves centre stage. The daughter of a close friend and neighbour of Barbara’s disappears in London, in the company of her mother. Hadiyyah, the young girl, reappears five months later and is kidnapped from an open-air market in Lucca.
Scotland Yard is reluctant to get involved until Barbara realises that by finessing the most unscrupulous of the British tabloids she can bring about an investigation. The Amanda Knox trial is clearly part of the narrative DNA here and George has spoken of the frenzy with which the British tabloids settled on Knox as a villain: the "Foxy Knoxy" syndrome. But it is not Barbara who is sent to Italy; rather, her superior officer DI Lynley is obliged to cope with language problems and racial issues.
The new elements here have had an energising effect on George’s work, which had recently lost some of its original freshness. Her treatment of the Mediterranean settings (along with a raft of intriguing new characters) shows a new exuberance. The prodigious sprawl of the book will perhaps rule it out for any casual readers, but George aficionados will consider that Just One Evil Act possesses (as Schumann said of Schubert’s Great C Major symphony) "heavenly length".
Just One Evil Act, By Elizabeth George. Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99