I finished Elizabeth George’s new book, “Careless in Red,” on Sunday (it was book #129, for those of you who are keeping track at home). George has written some great books in her day – “Missing Joseph” and “Playing for the Ashes” were particularly good – and her last book, “What Came Before He Shot Her,” was like a good Barbara Vine (that is, when she’s not writing those tedious Inspector Wexford books under her real name, Ruth Rendell).
Over the last few years I’ve been trying to figure out why George has become more and more irritating to me, and I finally cracked it. It’s the women characters in her books -- I cannot abide them. This book, for example, has a crazed nymphomaniac as one of the main characters. She is completely amoral and causes untold damage because of her out of control urge to screw any man who crosses her path. This book also brings back Barbara Havers, Lynley’s requisite sidekick, who is very smart but whose intelligence is constantly undercut by George’s snide comments about her appearance. Havers is a mess in her dress and her personal life, she wears red high-top sneakers and her hair looks like it was cut over the bathroom sink by someone with no idea what they’re doing. She never has any meaningful personal relationships, and we’re given to understand that it’s because she’s ugly! (Of course it is! Women are only valuable if they are beautiful!)
Which brings us to the dear departed, Lynley’s lovely brainless wife, who died in the last Lynley novel and whose murder was the topic of George’s last book. Helen was a bimbo. A stupid, wealthy, ditz who spent one entire book (I can’t remember which one, it might have been “For the Sake of Elena”) trying to decide if she should marry Lynley or not. She was beautiful and useless and obsessed with her shoes, and she died on her doorstep surrounded by her shopping, which is supposed to be poignant or something, but is actually only sad and pathetic.
Even the normal women in George’s books are not normal. They are deeply unhappy in marriages where they are nothing more than glorified ornaments, completely supported by their husbands and yet moaning about the sad emptiness of their lives. They are stunning beauties who take whatever they want and leave the rest. They are without conscience, interested only in their own pleasures. Or they are housewives, happily dedicating themselves to the support and nurture of the people around them while completely ignoring their own internal lives, their own needs. (This is what women are supposed to be, apparently, because George does not vent her spleen on the lovely housewife or the dedicated matriarch the way she goes for the single gal.)
There is one female character in “Careless in Red” who is almost normal, and I suspect that she will be Lynley’s future love interest (at which point she will immediately give up her job as a veterinarian, perhaps to dedicate herself to shopping, but more likely she will keep her job and the book will drone on about the impossibility of living with that yet unknown species, a Woman With A Brain). Even she, though, has a dark and damaged past, which gives us to know that she will not, ultimately, be a suitable mate for the Earlish Lynley.
Why do authors do this? Why is it so often women authors who do this? What is it about women that we cannot see one another as we are, as human beings, but instead need to focus on stupid superficial things like hair and accessories and shoes? (And, while we’re asking unanswerable questions, what is it about shoes?) George’s male characters are okay; they’re a little one-sided sometimes but at least they are different from one another and are not treated with that vicious contempt.
“Careless in Red” was not Elizabeth George’s worst book, by any means. I think, though, that it may be the last book of hers I read – at least until she recognizes that women are people too.