American writer pens authentic British detective series

Seated: Chandler King, Bella Bursulaya, Author Elizabeth George, Cathedral Catholic High School teacher Christy Bailleul. Standing: Elizabeth Breitmeyer, Amaka Chigbolu, Cindy Graf, Caitlin Connolly, Sabrina Bassler, Emily Rotunda
(McKenzie Images)

To those reading one of Elizabeth George's mystery novels, it might seem obvious that the writer was as British as her main characters. After all, the books are mostly set in England, and George has a true knack for portraying the speech patterns, language and habits of the queen's subjects.

But they'd be wrong - George was born in Ohio, lived in California for many years, and now calls Seattle and nearby Whidbey Island home - she's an American through and through, although one with a passion and deep knowledge of all things English.

"I've always loved England and have traveled there for years," said George, who was the featured author at the April 25 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort.

She first traveled to England in 1966, when she was a schoolgirl, and she's been going back ever since, particularly when she is researching one of her Inspector Thomas Lynley mysteries. Her most recent volume, "The Punishment She Deserves," was published this year by Viking, and marks the 20th book in the series. The popular series was also made into a TV show by the BBC.

In addition to the Lynley series, George has written a shorter series of young adult novels set on Whidbey Island.

The new Lynley mystery is set in the medieval town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, and during her research, George carefully walked the town and its environs to make sure that the routes she laid out for her characters were actually feasible.

The book centers around the supposed suicide of a church deacon, who was in police custody after an anonymous caller accused the deacon of being a child molester.

During trips to research her books, George said, she's looking for nooks and crannies where a murder could take place, or a body could be discovered.

"I don't go to England as a typical tourist," she said.

George's main characters, Lynley and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, are sent from London's Scotland Yard to Ludlow, to find out if there was more to the deacon's death than an initial investigation had determined.

The two encounter a cast of characters who are at turns evasive and secretive, requiring the detectives' best investigative work to ferret out the truth. In George's fictional world, Lynley and Havers have worked together long enough to know how the other's mind works.

"Lynley could tell when Havers was about to start pulling on the bit. There were generally two signs. The first was her gait, which altered from her usual saunter to something akin to a charge, heading into a wind when there was no wind. The second was her expression, which could either telegraph the triumph of gotcha! or the absolute knowledge of what had to be done next to make gotcha! a proximate certainty. As they headed towards his car, she was demonstrating both gait and expression," George wrote.

Along with visiting the towns where she plans to set her books, George also reads voraciously about the regions so that she can infuse her writing with details about her settings, and make them as authentic as possible.

She also reads all of the British newspapers she can get her hands on, especially the tabloids, which provide a rich tapestry of feature articles about ordinary people.

"I get a lot of ideas from those stories, I have to say," she said.

In writing her books, George said, she is always careful about advancing the plot in a way that doesn't reveal too much of the mystery too early on in the story. It's a delicate balance of pulling the reader along, like a surfer getting ready to ride a wave, without allowing the reader to get ahead of the story's building momentum.

"It's all a process of revelation," she said. One technique she uses is to plant a clue in the story, while emphasizing other elements of the scene to divert the reader's attention.

Throughout the Lynley series, George said, she has sought to have her characters grow, change and develop. And as the creator of an enduring series of novels, she has found it important to love her characters.

"So when they walk out onto the page in the next book, I'm delighted to see them," she said.

George’s books are available on, and at most book stores.

Get the RSF Review weekly in your inbox

Latest news from Rancho Santa Fe every Thursday.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Rancho Santa Fe Review.