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What Came Before He Shot Her    by Elizabeth George order for
What Came Before He Shot Her
by Elizabeth George
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Audio
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Glory Campbell is on her way to the airport when she unceremoniously delivers her three grandchildren to the London doorstep of her unsuspecting daughter Kendra Osborne. It is at that point in Kendra's life - and in the children's lives - that things are about to be permanently and disastrously changed.

The oldest of the children, fifteen-year-old Vanessa, is uncontrollably precocious and unrepentantly rebellious. The youngest child, seven-year-old Toby, is severely challenged in his interactions with the world around him because of his emotional and intellectual limitations. The middle child, eleven-year-old Joel, is painfully shy and cautiously observant, but those qualities will not adequately protect him from the future.

Forty-year-old Kendra has been married twice - widowed once and divorced once - and she is an ambitious woman who is 'tawny, exotic, and {has been} willing to use her looks to get what she wanted.' However, at this point, the one thing that Kendra definitely does not want in her life is responsibility for the three children. But Kendra has no choice. The children's mother languishes in a mental institution. Their father is dead. And the irresponsible grandmother is on her way back to Jamaica with her most recently acquired friend. So, Kendra now faces the soon-to-be-overwhelming challenges of caring for her niece and nephews.

Among the challenges, Vanessa immediately gets herself involved in problems in the form of truancy from school, use of drugs and alcohol, and risky relationships with men of very questionable character. The guileless and vulnerable Toby is a boy who 'is not quite right {and} fluctuates between reality and {the relative safety of} his make-believe world.' The sensitive and preternaturally responsible Joel is forced into a maturity above his years by circumstances beyond his control as he 'tries to keep everyone together, {... tries to keep} Toby out of the hands of the gang of neighborhood boys, {... and tries} to be easy and accommodating for his aunt Kendra.

However, Kendra is increasingly frustrated by her suddenly acquired responsibilities, the children face serious adjustment difficulties in their new neighborhood, and Vanessa - because of her involvement with a dangerous fellow named Blade - becomes the most volatile catalyst in an increasingly combustible situation, a situation that can best be encapsulated and foreshadowed in the simple statement: 'Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.'

Let me move away from the plot preview and close with the following comments and observations. A publicist for the publisher HarperCollins has correctly said this about Elizabeth George's new novel:

'Unlike anything else she has ever written, {emphasis added} What Came Before He Shot Her is a powerful look at disenfranchised youth and the crossroads of good and evil in their lives ... and what can happen when they make the wrong decision.'

That statement's introductory clause must not be overlooked. Readers familiar with Elizabeth George's previous works should not be fooled into thinking that they are about to read another of her traditional mysteries when they pick up their copy of What Came Before He Shot Her, because this is not a typical Elizabeth George novel. As a long, deliberate character study, the novel is something like a post-modern, reincarnation of Dickensian London rather than anything even closely resembling a good old-fashioned murder mystery. Nevertheless, although it is decidedly different, especially as it is rather encumbered by dialogue that replicates the (often impenetrable) colloquial dialects of urban London, What Came Before He Shot Her - with its provocatively predictive title - remains an effective (albeit slow-paced) novel through which readers are invited to look at the ways in which dark behaviors so often arise out of difficult circumstances.

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