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Huntington Beach Author's Latest: 'It's a Great Killing'

September 01, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

The setting for Elizabeth George's latest British mystery, "Payment in Blood," is a snowbound Scottish manor house where a London theatrical troupe has gathered to do read-throughs of a new play.

The play's the thing. Or is it?

On the first night, the playwright--a 35-year-old woman--is murdered in what the Huntington Beach author describes as "a rather deliciously graphic fashion": She is stabbed in the neck with a Scottish dirk--a short dagger--that pins her to the mattress of her bed.

Says George, demonstrating absolutely no literary remorse whatsoever: "It's a great killing, I have to admit--one of my better efforts."

The former El Toro High School English teacher's 1988 debut mystery novel, "A Great Deliverance," made it to the London Times best-seller list, sold to 13 foreign countries, was nominated as best first novel by the Mystery Writers of America and generated highly favorable comparisons of George to British mystery masters P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Dorothy Sayers.

Not bad for a writer born in Ohio and reared in the San Francisco Bay Area.

By most accounts, the mystery writer has done it again with the second in her series featuring Scotland Yard's Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner, Detective Sgt. Barbara Havers.

Publisher's Weekly called "Payment in Blood," which explores the theme of love and betrayal, "a vividly characterized story of murder and espionage."

Kirkus Reviews says George is "a major talent likely to influence the direction of the crime novel for years to come."

And Los Angeles Times' critic Charles Champlin said the new book "extends (George's) claims to attention as an important new writer in the crime field. . . . She's a spectacular new voice in mystery writing."

Then there was the Newsweek review.

Newsweek, which last year spotlighted "A Great Deliverance" in its summer reading list of "top-notch thrillers," called "Payment in Blood" a "disappointment" compared to George's "masterly first novel." Said the Newsweek reviewer: "George demonstrated in her previous book how well she can write if she tries. This time, she leaves readers feeling a bit cheated and exhausted."

George was out of the country--appropriately in the middle of a research trip to England--when the Newsweek review appeared in mid-August, but she is well aware that "they hated it."

"All I know is it was a bad review, and considering what the other reviews did, we were astonished," said George, 40, just back from her four-week trip to England, where she attended a class on Shakespeare at Cambridge University.

Although she is "initially depressed" whenever she receives a bad review, George said that "so far the bad reviews have come along so seldom--and the good reviews have been so good --that they've really offset any depression I've had over a bad review.

"I try to keep in mind that reading a book is a very subjective experience, and some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it, and there is no author alive who gets all good reviews."

The occasional negative review aside, George has little to complain about--both critically and monetarily.

She already has completed the third and fourth mysteries in her four-book contract with Bantam Books. (The third, entitled "Well Schooled in Murder," takes place in a British boys school; the fourth, "A Suitable Vengeance," is set in a fishing village near Cornwall.)

While in Cambridge doing research for her fifth mystery, George received a phone call from her New York literary agent informing her that Bantam had just agreed to a new two-book contract that will, George said, earn her in "the high six figures."

"I nearly fell out of the phone booth," said the still-flabbergasted George, who earned more than $250,000 under her first Bantam contract.

"I never expected to be making the kind of money I'm making," said George, who has taught a creative writing class at Coastline Community College and Irvine Valley College. "I don't write a book to fit a formula, and I don't write a book because I think I'm going to get a lot of money for it, so I'm constantly surprised by the amount of money I get.

"From the very beginning, I wrote what I wanted to write, and that is absolutely my No. 1 advice that I give to my (writing) students. Maybe that sounds fatuous, saying money doesn't matter. It's nice, but for me what's important is my publisher gives me the freedom and support to write what I need to write and the way I need to write it. I can't tell you how much that's worth."

On Tuesday, George begins a five-week, 15-city publicity tour for "Payment in Blood." It's her first book-promotion tour.

"I'm very nervous about it just because of the strain of so much travel more than anything else," she said. "I'm not nervous about meeting people and talking about my books."

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