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WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER


By Elizabeth George

Harper, 2007, c2006 ($7.99)
ISBN: 978-0-06-054563-5

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

"Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride." Thus begins Elizabeth George’s tale of one London family on the road to disaster. At more than 700 pages, there was no excess verbiage, and this reader never lost interest. As the title implies, we know the end of the story -- a young man took the life of someone close to Inspector Lynley in the previous book, WITH NO ONE AS WITNESS, for no apparent reason. In this masterful story, George goes back several months and follows the progress of the people who would, by their actions or inactions, bring about the tragic ending.

Joel, his teenage sister Vanessa, and their younger brother Toby get on that bus with their grandmother Glory. They have been in her care since their father was murdered and their mother institutionalized, but she’s had enough. She’s got a ticket to Jamaica to join her boyfriend, and she dumps the kids on her other daughter, Kendra Osborne, unannounced and unwanted. Kendra, probably the most well-adjusted and successful member of the family, is dismayed to return home and find them on her doorstep, Vanessa dressed like a street walker, Toby clutching his ever-present inner tube, and Joel trying to take care of them all.

Kendra has no experience with raising children, but she refuses to send them away, feeling that they have suffered far too much to go through another upheaval. It becomes obvious before long, though, that she is in over her head. Nessa seems hell-bent on self destruction, getting involved with a dangerous crowd, butting heads with her aunt at every turn. Toby, whose mental condition is not labeled, behaves in an autistic manner, hanging on to his comforting lucky charms -- a lava lamp will later replace the inner tube -- and clinging to Joel for dear life. Joel tries his best to be the man of the family, but he’s just a kid, not mature enough to make the right choices.

At several points along the way, there are possibilities for a good outcome. Well-meaning teachers, social workers, mentors, Kendra’s young boyfriend, even the police, try to stop the downward slide. Knowing the ending is preordained, the reader will still keep hoping that things will somehow turn out all right, but for this family "cobbled together by death, madness and misfortune," there can be no happy ending.

This may be George’s finest work yet, and it is certainly unique. The ending was not what I expected, but looking at what had come before, it made perfect sense.

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