"Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest." -- Numbers 35:30-32 (NKJV)
This Body of Death has many unexpected features: great length; more narrators that you'll remember seeing recently in just one novel; two odd story lines; a mystery that doesn't unravel very rapidly; colorful context; and the police at odds with one another in teeth-jarring ways. The best news is that Thomas Lynley is back to doing some detecting, albeit in a subordinate role. There's good news and bad news about Barbara Havers: lots of her, but portrayed in an annoying way.
For those who love detailed, carefully built-up character development, This Body of Death is a delight. For those who want a quick read, the book will be annoying. A lot of your reaction to the book will be determined by your sympathy (or lack thereof) for two of the leading characters (I won't say which two, to avoid any spoilers). I found the lead characters to be reasonably interesting, so the book kept my interest. I'm not sure that all readers will come to the same conclusion.
For much of the book, I felt like I was watching a play from the second balcony. The book never did grip me and pull me into the story in the way that intense murder mysteries sometimes do. Instead, I felt as if I was being offered an unusual puzzle to solve . . . with a friendly dare on author Elizabeth George's face, rather than a flesh-and-blood story. It's a sort of cross between the Agatha Christie puzzle-oriented mysteries and the psychological developments of a Baroness James mystery. Although the book has lots of visceral details, you also may not feel engaged by it. If you don't, I think that the conflicts among the detectives will keep you entertained reasonably well.
I was continually delighted by the intricacies of the story, the overlaying threads of character development, and many unexpected elements. Although it's not a great book, I found it to be rewarding to read. It took me quite along time to figure out the solution to the mystery . . . something I delighted to be challenged by.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.