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British Detective Novel Soars--Whodunit? Yank Author

May 05, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Kirkus Reviews calls Elizabeth George's British detective novel "A Great Deliverance" an "awesome first-fiction venture."

Mystery Scene magazine says "A Great Deliverance" is a "masterpiece" and that while George "stands alone" as an author, she inevitably will be compared to British mystery masters P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and even Dorothy Sayers.

Book of the Month Club will feature "A Great Deliverance" as an alternate selection in its summer catalogue, and Bantam Press, George's British publisher, plans to submit "A Great Deliverance" for a Golden Dagger--the British Crime Writers' award.

That's all heady praise indeed for a first-time author of a British detective novel.

It's even more so considering that Elizabeth George is as British as a Fourth of July picnic.

George, it turns out, is an Ohio-born, San Francisco Bay Area-reared former El Toro High School teacher. Which is why she was particularly thrilled to receive her first fan letter last week. It was from a Los Angeles man who had read an advance copy of "A Great Deliverance" and wanted to know how long George had been living in America.

" 'A Great Deliverance' reads like a British novel, and most people who read it don't think I'm an American," said George, 39, seated in the living room of the house in Huntington Beach she shares with her high school principal husband, Ira Toibin, and their miniature longhaired dachshund, Brandy.

"A Great Deliverance," published in this country by Bantam Books, arrived in bookstores this week. The mystery revolves around a particularly gruesome murder involving a Yorkshire girl who is accused of decapitating her father. The novel introduces two characters--Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner, Detective Sgt. Barbara Havers--who will reappear in future books.

George, whose second book in the series will be published next year, has contracts with Bantam to produce four British detective novels that will earn her at least $230,000.

"I think it's really decent money," George readily acknowledged. "Who am I? I'm just nobody. They're taking an incredible risk on an unknown author."

George's literary debut comes after years of writing everything from unpublished short stories, poems and novels to unproduced screenplays. And just as she is having to get used to finally being a published author, she is having to get used to a new name.

Her real name is Susan George. But when "A Great Deliverance" was sold in England, her publisher asked her to change her first name, lest she be confused with the British actress of the same name. So she submitted a list of names to her publisher, who chose the last name on the list: Elizabeth, which happens to be her middle name. George said the first time someone called and asked for Elizabeth, she thought it was one of her friends teasing her. "I still have to get used to that," she said with a laugh.

Despite her creative output over the past 25 years, George had made only one attempt to sell her work before 1983. It was a mainstream novel she wrote in the early '70s called "The Glass Pillar." The manuscript got as far as being read by the vice president of a publishing house that ultimately rejected it.

At the time, George said, she didn't realize that having her work reach that high in the publishing hierarchy was a good sign. Instead, she said, she took that one rejection as a sign that she was not a good writer.

Although the rejection didn't stop her from continuing to write, it wasn't until 1983 that she decided to "get serious" and try to sell her work again.

That same year, she began writing her first detective novel, which she purposely chose not to set in America. The American detective novel, she said, traditionally features the hard-boiled detective. More appealing to her as a writer is the British detective who, she said, "is traditionally sensitive and tormented--a man who can conveniently quote Shakespeare."

Considering George's background, it's no mystery why she's writing British rather than American detective novels.

She earned a bachelor's degree in English (with an emphasis in British literature) from UC Riverside in 1970 and taught English--everything from remedial reading to Shakespeare studies--for 12 years at El Toro High School.

But her interest in England goes back even further--to the early 1960s when she "developed a love for Great Britain that rose out of the British music scene. I went to England for the first time in 1966, and I just fell in love with the country."

Although she wrote two unsold British detective novels before "A Great Deliverance," aspiring novelists everywhere will either be inspired or deflated to learn the speed with which George wrote "A Great Deliverance."

She had just returned home from a research trip to Yorkshire, England, in the summer of 1985. As has become her habit when she sets off on such trips, she knows only who the victim and the killer are, "and I rely on England to give me the rest. So far that has never failed."

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