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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Mystery, She Writes : Critics consider her the master of the modern British whodunit. But Elizabeth George of Huntington Harbour, teacher and self-taught writer, is more apple pie than scones and tea.

May 26, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's one of those patented Southern California late spring afternoons. Temperature hovering in the mid-80s. A light, flag-flapping sea breeze. A let's-play-hooky-and-go-to-the-beach kind of day.

But author Elizabeth George has something far more chilling on her mind this day.

Hunkered in front of her computer in the upstairs study of her Huntington Harbour home, her thoughts drift more than 5,000 miles away, to a dying seaside town in Essex, England.

There's been a murder, you see.

The victim is a young Pakistani man who had come to England for an arranged marriage to the Anglo-Pakistani daughter of a wealthy businessman. It's the fourth day of an investigation into what appears to be a racially motivated hate crime, and Scotland Yard Det. Sgt. Barbara Havers and an inspector with the Essex constabulary are gathering evidence and pursuing alibis. . . .

George is writing diligently to make up for lost time. It's been a hectic year. She is less than halfway through writing what will be the ninth installment in her acclaimed series of British mysteries.

"In the Presence of the Enemy," George's latest national best-seller featuring the aristocratic Scotland Yard Det. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Havers, his dumpy proletariat partner, hit bookstores in March and rose to No. 2 on both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times hardback best-seller lists.

George has a January deadline for her new book, which she began researching in England a year ago. Normally, she'd be winding things up by now.

And for a self-described goal-oriented perfectionist such as George, being six months behind her own self-imposed deadline is an anxiety-producing state of affairs.

But George can forgive herself for her tardiness.

She not only went through a divorce from her husband of 24 years last fall--a difficult time during which, she says, "I didn't do a lot of writing"--but she has spent an unusually large amount of time traveling over the past nine months.

In fact, she has spent only two complete months at home since September.

There were book tours in Germany, Sweden, Britain and the United States. She taught a weeklong fiction-writing seminar at the University of Oklahoma. Then, the "fun" trip to England, the ski trip to Utah, the seminars on the fine line between creativity and madness in Rome and Venice.

And after only two weeks at home playing catch-up on her work after her trip to Italy in April, she left May 17 for a nine-day promotional trip to Amsterdam, where she would be honored as suspense author of the year.

"She stuns me," says Kate Miciak, George's longtime editor at Bantam in New York. "I really don't know how she can keep complicated novels like hers in her head and walk away for three or four weeks and then literally pick up where she left off."

"In the Presence of the Enemy" (Bantam, $23.95) deals with the kidnapping of the daughter of a female member of Parliament and the sleazy world of British tabloids. It has only added to the stature of an author critics call a "master of the modern English mystery."

Eight years after "A Great Deliverance" earned her both the Agatha and the Anthony awards for best first novel, fans continue to be surprised to discover that George is no more British than Coca-Cola.

"People still come up and say 'I can't believe you're an American,' " says the Ohio-born George, 47, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Even British fans who know she lives in the United States often tell her they thought she was an Englishwoman living in America.

"It's always gratifying," she says, "because I want the books to be as believably English as I can make them, so if people tell me they think I'm English, it tells me I'm succeeding."

A former El Toro High School English teacher, George wrote "A Great Deliverance" on her summer vacation in 1985. Her ex-husband, Ira Toibin, quit his job as an acting school district superintendent in Cerritos several years ago to be her business manager. George and Toibin met at UC Riverside, where she earned her degree in English (with an emphasis on British literature) and he was an economics and urban-studies major.

Three years ago, they bought a spacious "modified Cape Cod" in the upscale gated community that George continues to make her home. But now it's just George and Brandy, her totally blind and nearly deaf, 15-year-old, long-haired miniature dachshund who, at the moment, is curled up on the leather couch next to her in the family room.

George says she and Toibin had "just really come to a time where we were going in different directions." They have a "tremendous amount of respect for each other and consequently parted well," she adds.

Indeed, Toibin, who is remarried and lives three minutes away, continues as George's business manager.

*

George has been an Anglophile since the British music invasion of 1964.

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