Wednesday morning of last week, I found myself dwelling in the pleasant afterglow of the previous day’s Usual Suspects discussion, which I had led. At first, I was not disposed to do much of anything – anything, that is, that would tax my poor brain….
And yet – I kept reviewing various aspects of our session: facts that came to light as well as those that were never expressed, and items that got lost in the shuffle as we went along. Ergo, this post.
I’ve read twelve novels by Peter Lovesey and not been disappointed by any of them. As indicated by the review I posted in this space in August of last year, I thought that Cop To Corpse was among his best. Well, submitting what’s essentially a beloved object to the scrutiny of the Usual Suspects can be, shall we say, a bracing experience. I’m happy to say that in general, the discussion went well. But flaws in the novel that I’d not noticed – or had not necessarily thought of as flaws – were exposed to light. This is always done with shrewd and intelligent analysis. I remain in awe of the Suspects’ powers of detection!
We had quite a few laughs, a welcome and desirable component of any social or intellectual gathering. Most of the humor was supplied by the author, both in his novel and in remarks and interviews. Lovesey’s website is a goldmine of information. His autobiographical essay, a real treasure, starts out thus:
I was born at home, a suburban semi in Whitton, Middlesex, in 1936, “with instruments”, as my mother used to say, and it didn’t mean violins playing. In midwife-speak, I was turned down, a salutary experience for a future writer.
I actually began my presentation by recounting an experience I’d had recently while subbing at the Central Library. A patron came in grumbling about the poor quality of recent fiction and asking for a recommendation. “I want,” she declared forcefully, “a book with genuine literary merit and a plot that’s really tight and engaging.” As this happened during the run-up to my book discussion, I had Peter Lovesey on the brain. When I asked my interlocutor if she’d read that author’s work, she exclaimed, “Oh yes – I think he’s excellent!” She added that in general she preferred the British writers because of the way they handled the language and their wit and sense of the ironic. Then the fun actually began. It consisted of me rattling off the names of my favorite Brits and the patron responding in the affirmative, every time. Big names – P.D. James, Dick Francis, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill – and lesser known – Peter Turnbull, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, W.J. Burley, M.C. Beaton, John Harvey – she’d read them all. (You’ll note the absence of two of my favorites: Ruth Rendell, who she deemed “too cynical,” and Barry Maitland, whom she disliked for no specific reason.) Now this does not happen very often when I’m doing Readers’ Advisory, and so chalk up yet another humbling experience for Your Faithful Blogger.
Finally she threw me a lifeline in the form of C.J. Sansom’s superlative Matthew Shardlake novels. Not only had I read several of them, starting with the first, Dissolution – I had handy what seemed to me the exact right recommendation: a marvelous new historical mystery by Robin Blake entitled A Dark Anatomy. Aha: a “gotcha moment!” She’d never heard of it. And naturally, I couldn’t find it. The customer chose not to reserve the book, but she was intrigued – I could tell. I’d been consulting a printout of my recently assembled annotated list of “Best Books so far of 2013,” and when she asked if she could have it, I handed it over. She has some great reading in store – at least, I hope so….
But I digress. (Did I ever!) My opening remarks passed from Lovesey’s quite interesting life on to his body of work. Peter Lovesey entered the field of crime writing quite simply, for the money. In 1969, he and his wife Jax spotted a newspaper ad offering a thousand pound prize for a first work of crime fiction. Now Lovesey was an avid sports buff with a particular interest in track and field. In fact, the previous year he’d published The Kings of Distance: A Study of Five Great Runners (published in this country as Five Kings of Distance). In the course of his research, he’d developed an interest in athletics in the Victorian era. Jax encouraged her husband to enter this writing contest and he did so, setting his story in 1879. At that time, race walking competitions called “wobbles” were all the rage. Lovesey made one of these events the centerpiece of his novel, which he called Wobble To Death. He states the outcome succinctly: “Off-beat, with a catchy title, it won.”
In the years that followed, Peter Lovesey has proved an inventive and prolific writer. He’s written numerous short stories, eight standalone novels, three books featuring Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and has recently published The Tooth Tattoo, the thirteenth entry in the Peter Diamond series. In addition to Cop To Corpse, I’ve reviewed three other novels from this series: Stagestruck, Skeleton Hill, and The Secret Hangman; also Headhunters, one of the two novels featuring DI Henrietta “Hen” Mallin.
(The best place to examine Lovesey’s body of work is on Stop! You’re Killing Me. The way that information is displayed on that site is wonderfully helpful and informative. In addition to a list of titles, you’re given the name and profession of the chief protagonist, the date of publication, alternate titles if there are any, and information concerning awards. In Lovesey’s case, these last are quite numerous.)
The fact that Peter Lovesey published his first mystery in 1969 places him firmly within the range of what may be called the Second Golden Age of British crime fiction. You’ll recall that the First Golden Age is usually located between the two world wars. This fertile period of creativity saw the debut efforts of such stellar talents as Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and of course, Agatha Christie.
By my reckoning, the Second Golden Age began in 1962. In that year, Dick Francis hit the ground running with Dead Cert, while P.D. James weighed in with the first Adam Dalgliesh title, Cover Her Face. Although firmly ensconced in the country house mystery tradition, Cover Her Face stood out for its superior writing, plotting, and character creation. As for Dead Cert, I first read it several years ago and was amazed by the assured writing and the compelling storytelling. It was on the reading list for the Smithsonian’s Mystery Lover’s England Tour, which we had the great good luck to take in 2006. Although we didn’t actually meet Dick Francis, we did visit a race track in Yorkshire. This proved a memorable and worthwhile experience. (It was on this same tour that we had the great pleasure of meeting Colin Dexter – at the Randolph hotel in Oxford, no less.)
Agatha Christie was all set to use the title Cover Her Face for one of the Miss Marple novels when P.D. James unexpectedly beat her to the punch. Christie eventually settled on the title Sleeping Murder instead. There’s actually more to this story, a full recounting of which can be found in the “Murder in Retrospect” section of John Curran’s book Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. The phrase itself comes from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster: “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”
In 1964, Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death appeared. This procedural marked the debut of Inspector Reginald Wexford, my personal all time favorite fictional British police officer.. Then, in A Clubbable Woman, Reginald Hill sprang the cheerfully coarse Andy Dalziel and his cerebral second in command Peter Pascoe upon unsuspecting but delighted readers. This burst creativity and innovation is nicely bracketed at the other end in 1975 by the first novel in a series held in deep reverence by many of us: in Last Bus To Woodstock, Colin Dexter gifted crime fiction aficionados with the inimitable Inspector Morse, portrayed so superbly on television by John Thaw, of blessed memory.
We Suspects noted that nearly all of these books, including Peter Lovesey’s Wobble To Death, are police procedurals. The notable exception is Dead Cert. Dick Francis had such a rich fund of material from his racing and sports writing days that he was able to fashion one engaging narrative after another without the benefit of the procedural’s structure or of the presence of a continuing character (although occasionally a character does crop up more than one novel)
It would seem that Peter Lovesey’s muse is now firmly centered in the here and now. When asked if he intended to set any more novels in the Victorian era, he replied that this was unlikely. Although he’d become deeply knowledgeable about the period, by 1990 he felt in need of a new challenge. Besides, there was an additional problem:
Television is a powerful medium. I was delighted by the casting of Alan Dobie as my detective, Sergeant Cribb, but in a strange way he inhabited the character so powerfully that when I came to think about further books all I could see was Alan’s face. I’d lost my original character somewhere in the process…. The cupboard was bare.
Sue Grafton interviewed Peter Lovesey in February of 2011. At the time, she’d read novels from the Peter Diamond and Sergeant Cribb series, as well as one featuring “Hen” Mallin. Here’s what she has to say on the subject of television and film adaptations of an author’s work:
Since I only have the one series, I can’t afford to sell the film or television rights. In this country, a producer buys the rights to the character, not the book itself, which gives him the right to do anything he pleases. When Lawrence Block sold the rights to his Bernie Rodenbarr series … the role of Bernie … a white, male Jewish burglar…was given to Whoopee Goldberg. So, of course, I worry that the part of Kinsey Millhone would go to Eddie Murphy. Please believe me, even when I get to “Z” I won’t sell the rights. I’ve made my children and grandchildren take a blood oath to that effect. I’ve sworn if they ever go up against my wishes in that regard, I’ll come back from the grave. They know I can do it, too!