Maggie Spence, a fatherless 13-year-old in the English village of Winslough, needed some advice. She'd begun having sex with her boyfriend, Nick, 15, something she knew was wrong, but felt unable to stop because she enjoyed it so much.
"The promise of pleasure is often too seductive for us to abstain when we should," Robin Sage, the town vicar, told Maggie after listening to her confession. "That's when we must turn to the Lord. We must ask Him to infuse us with the strength to resist."
Sage offered to have a chat with Maggie's mother, Juliet Spence, to persuade her to let her daughter join the church youth group. Although not a churchgoing woman, Juliet agreed to talk to Sage. She also served him a meal, which turned out to be his last; instead of wild parsnip, Juliet, an experienced herbalist, fed the vicar poisonous water hemlock.
Although she was cleared of any wrongdoing -- Juliet declared she'd simply made a terrible mistake -- the fact that the two plants' roots look so different made her claim suspicious. But why would she want to kill a man she barely knew?
That's the central mystery in Elizabeth George's "Missing Joseph," her sixth novel featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley. The inspector's close friend, Simon St.James, and his wife, Deborah, travel to Winslough on vacation, hoping to see Sage, whom Deborah had met by chance one day in a London museum. When they learn the circumstances of his death, Simon decides to investigate the matter.
Also odd is the fact that the local constable who handled the case, Colin Shepherd, happens to be Juliet's lover. How could he possibly have been objective?
As Simon's suspicions mount, he decides to call Lynley and ask him to come to the village. Lynley is on vacation, and his original plan was to spend a balmy week in Greece with his girlfriend, Helen Clyde; however, the two had a lover's quarrel on the morning of their trip, so the inspector decides he may as well head for wintry Winslough instead.
The mystery is perhaps Ms. George's most satisfying puzzle yet. And the villagers are a wonderfully fascinating bunch -- the child-woman Maggie, who yearns to know the truth about her missing father; the vicar's housekeeper, Polly Yarkin, a dabbler in witchcraft who casts spells to win the love of Constable Shepherd; Brendan Power, trapped in a loveless marriage with the daughter of Winslough's wealthiest resident; and Juliet herself, who fears her passion for Shepherd may be destroying her relationship with her daughter.
But when the book turns its focus toward Lynley, it becomes much less compelling. In Ms. George's previous novels, the aristocratic inspector was tormented by his unrequited love for Helen; now that he has finally won her, she turns out to be a vapid Sloane Ranger type, an aimless, wealthy girl living off Daddy's fortune. Besides, Lynley's pining for Helen always made him seem much more human. Now that he's finally got the object of his desires, he's in danger of turning into a bore.
Lynley's working-class partner, Barbara Havers, is barely in evidence in "Missing Joseph" -- too bad, since the smart-mouthed, streetwise policewoman is always such a salty foil for the blue-blooded inspector.
Still, this rich, intricate novel is a perfect choice for anyone in the market for first-rate summer fiction. Not only is the book long enough to last most readers through a week at the beach, but its descriptions of the harsh northern English winter are so vivid that they might make you feel chilly on even the hottest July day.
Title: "Missing Joseph"
Author: Elizabeth George
Length, price: 496 pages, $21.95