No True Brit

updated 08/23/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN MYSTERY WRITER ELIZABETH George was working on Payment in Blood in 1988, she phoned her 79-year-old mother in Mountain View, Calif., for advice. "I have a lady who has to die," George told her. "How can I have her die quickly and not suffer?" Mum didn't miss a beat. "Well, dear," she replied cheerfully, "you could sever her spinal column. You could stab her in the neck where the spinal cord meets the brain." "Mother," George said, "that's delicious."

George, 43, comes naturally by her appetite for the horrific. But her relish for things British is another story altogether. Judging by her new novel, Missing Joseph—which features high-born New Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley solving a vicar's murder against a backdrop of witchcraft and passion on the Lancashire moors—you would expect George herself to be as British as high tea at Brown's Hotel. Not so. Born in Ohio, she grew up in northern California and now lives outside L.A., just a mile from the Pacific. Yet her rampant Anglophilia, which she says took root during a summer in England at age 16, has resulted in six Bril-based novels in the tradition of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey that have sold more than 2 million copies in paperback.

It has also opened her up to accusations of literary imitation from an American colleague, Martha Grimes. Like George, Grimes sets her mysteries in England and depends for their solution on an aristocratic detective who drives an expensive car and carries a gold cigarette case. So peeved is Grimes by what she perceives as George's deliberate borrowing that in her latest novel, The Horse You Came In On, she constructs a plot about literary pilfering. Moreover, she includes a female character, an author who pinches a rival's material and who, publishing insiders say, was inspired by George.

While Grimes burns, George maintains she's simply puzzled by all the fuss. "I've always been nonplussed by Martha's allegations," she says. "She writes the 'lea cozy,' or light-hearted romp through murder. And I write the literary mystery. There's really nothing that can be compared beyond the superficial."

Growing up the only daughter of Robert George, an estimator for a conveyor company, and his wife, Anne, a nurse, George was influenced early by her parents' enthusiasm for literature. "When my older brother, Rob, was 6, he was struck in the eye by an arrow and had his eyes bandaged. My parents spent hours reading to him, and I listened," she says. "We weren't a family that had a lot of money. We turned to the world of imagination." At 7, George knew she wanted to write. She began turning out short stories in elementary school after her mother gave her an old '30s typewriter, and she wrote her first unpublished novel by the time she graduated from Holy Cross High School in Mountain View.

She turned to the more immediately remunerative world of teaching while studying at the University of California at Riverside, where she met husband-to-be Ira Toibin, now 44 and a deputy superintendent of schools in L.A. County. George taught English for 13 years and recalls how, at El Toro High School in Orange County, Calif., "I called my remedial students scholars. At first they thought I was making fun of them, but it was a rare student who didn't rise to my expectations." In 1981 she was named the county's Teacher of the Year.

Still, George's creative urges remained unsatisfied. While teaching a 1983 course in mystery novels at El Toro High, she began to write one herself. The result was A Great Deliverance (1988), and since then, George has published a mystery a year—including For the Sake of Elena (1992)—always using the same crime-solving team of Lynley, his working-class sergeant, Barbara Haver, and forensic specialist Simon St. James. Each book is usually preceded by a research trip to England, scouting out details and locales.

No one is more startled by her success than George herself. "My ambitions were very humble. I wanted to earn enough money at my writing so that I could write full-time," she says. Like her characters St. James and his wife, George and Toibin have no children. While refusing to discuss her own situation, George dismisses the St. Jameses' childlessness as a plot device "to give the characters a crisis to deal with." In her time away from deadlines, she and Toibin have managed to appreciate the fruits of her creative labors—among them a creamy 1993 Lexus coupe, a four-bedroom Huntington Beach home and vacations in Big Sur and Utah's ski resorts.

Toibin also enjoys helping his wife with her work. He listens to her plot lines and—like her mother—offers suggestions when she gets stuck. "One of the best pieces of advice Ira gave me," says George, "was when I was figuring out the murder in Payment in Blood. I came downstairs, upset, and said, I don't know what to do.' He casually suggested, 'Kill somebody else.' And all of a sudden it started to go right again."

MARJORIE ROSEN
DORIS BACON in Huntington Beach

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