English Lessons

updated 08/26/2002 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/2002 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For the last three years Elizabeth George has spirited her fiancé, Tom McCabe, to surprise getaways for his birthday. The first time, in 1999, she took him to Detroit, purportedly for a Supremes reunion concert. But when they landed she hurried him onto a connecting flight to Newport, R.I. There, George revealed the final plot twist: Their real destination was Nantucket. "It was," says McCabe, "a very fine adventure."

Fine adventures with surprise endings are a trademark of George's. The American-born author of the bestselling series about New Scotland Yard Det. Insp. Thomas Lynley has been an Anglophile since visiting England at age 15. George writes intricate mysteries that tour the idiosyncrasies of British life—from class nuances to the guilty pleasures of its tabloid newspapers. "Just 10 minutes of driving along one of those country roads," she says, "and I'm smiling, realizing why I write about England."

Similarly, although Lynley and his partner, demoted Sgt. Barbara Havers, follow in a long line of British sleuths, they are different because they have what George calls "a lot of back history, with lives outside the job." Lynley, for example, is an earl who lives in gilded comfort with his titled wife, while Havers cares for her aging mother and hangs out with friends in London's Pakistani community. "What sets George apart," says American mystery novelist T. Jefferson Parker, "is the way she brings people and places into your mind."

That talent is about to be seen by a larger audience: This month PBS airs the first of a two-part adaptation of A Great Deliverance, which won George the 1988 Agatha Award for best first mystery novel. Adaptations of four other George whodunits will air next summer as part of PBS's Mystery! series. "The movies," says George, "have been great to see."

But even with 11 bestsellers and the acclaim of critics—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY called her the "Queen of the Mystery"—George, 53, continues to approach writing, she says, "just as I would a regular job." With a collection of short mystery stories due out in November, she is working on her 12th Lynley novel, A Place of Hiding, rising at 6 a.m. most days for an hour of aerobics before sitting down to write in the book-lined study of her four-bedroom Huntington Beach, Calif., home. "If I waited for the moment of inspiration to strike," George says, "it probably wouldn't."

Instead she relies on meticulous research, consulting experts to make her books' crime-scene details authentic—like the time, needing information about a sliver of wood, she called a forensic botanist while writing In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner. Although George says she'll never move abroad ("I am very glad to be an American"), she personally scouts likely scenes of the crime, using her three-bedroom London apartment as a research base. "If she writes about the inside of a pub," says actor Nathaniel Parker, who plays Lynley in the PBS series, "she's seen the inside of that pub."

The younger of two children raised in Mountain View, Calif., by Robert, who worked in marketing, and Anne, a registered nurse (both are deceased), George began writing stories when she was in elementary school—using a 1939 typewriter that had belonged to her mother. "When I graduated from high school," says George, "she gave me an electric typewriter."

After earning an English degree in 1970 from the University of California, Riverside, George took a job teaching at nearby El Toro High School. But by 1983, when then-husband Ira Toibin bought one of the earliest IBM personal computers, she was ready for something more creative. "Once the computer came into my home," she says, "it was a simple jump from thinking about writing a novel to actually doing it."

A Great Deliverance came out to instant acclaim in 1988. George's home life, however, was coming apart. "At the time," says schools superintendent Toibin, now 52, "we were very career-driven, and our personal life suffered." In 1995 the couple, who have no children, divorced after 24 years of marriage.

These days George is weaving a romantic angle into her own story. She and McCabe, 54, a Kern county fire-fighter she met at a party in 1996, plan to marry in October. Of course, she says, "there will be a surprise." But just what it will be—or where it will take place—she isn't saying. That will remain a mystery.

Galina Espinoza
Cynthia Wang in Huntington Beach and Kwala Mandel in London

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