2014 marks Peter Lovesey’s 44th year as a published mystery writer—which is particularly impressive, given that his career might have taken a very different course, had he not won a first crime novel-writing contest sponsored by British publisher Macmillan back in 1969. The book he entered was Wobble to Death, about the killing of a contender in an 1879 race-walking challenge known as a “wobble.” The investigator Lovesey sent to tackle that extraordinary case was Sergeant Cribb, certainly one of the cleverest and most dogged dispatchers of justice to claw his way through the pea-soup fogs of Victorian London. Lovesey not only scored a £1,000 prize for his work, but received a publishing contract. Wobble was released in book form in 1970, to be followed by seven other mysteries starring Cribb and his well-intentioned (but far less imaginative) associate, Constable Thackeray. The last of those, Waxwork, won the U.K. Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger Award in 1978, by which time Lovesey had achieved sufficient success to leave his teaching job and become a full-time author.
He has since penned more than two dozen other spirited mysteries, including The False Inspector Dew, which captured the CWA’s 1982 Gold Dagger Award; a trio of whodunits (beginning with 1987’s Bertie and the Tinman) that imagine Queen Victoria’s charming, concupiscent oldest son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales—and future King Edward VII—playing sleuth; and a string of criminal inquiries for Peter Diamond, a portly, middle-aged and technophobic chief superintendent with the police department in Bath, England. Introduced in The Last Detective (1991), Diamond has gone on to feature in such yarns as The Vault (1999), Diamond Dust (2002) and Stagestruck (2011).
In his new, 14th outing, The Stone Wife, Diamond must get to the bottom of an auction-house holdup, during which the top bidder for a massive slab of carved stone was killed. The deceased: John Gildersleeve, a professor of Medieval English and an authority on Geoffrey Chaucer, who believed the coveted artifact—known as the Wife of Bath—was linked to his favorite English poet. Was Gildersleeve’s shooting incidental to the theft, or was the robbery a smokescreen for croaking the educator? Diamond’s probing sends him to Chaucer’s house in Somerset, while his colleague Ingeborg Smith pursues an undercover inquiry into illicit weapons suppliers. A rookie cop gone missing and fears that the Wife has cursed Diamond’s office add to this tale’s complications.
I recently asked Lovesey about his current series protagonist and latest novel.
After many years spent concocting mostly historical mysteries, you published The Last Detective, which brought us cantankerous contemporary police detective Peter Diamond. Why the switch of gears? And did you find a modern-day story any more or less challenging to compose than those set in times past?
I had been writing contemporary short stories for many years and looked forward to trying a novel in a modern setting. The problem, as I saw it, was to make it authentic. Police methods and organization, forensic science, and even the expressions people use are constantly changing. In the historicals I could set my stories in a particular year and they were fixed. I could read old newspapers and contemporary accounts and be confident I had it broadly right. Turning to the here and now was scary. I deliberately made Diamond a dinosaur who distrusted the men in white coats. But I mugged up on all the police manuals I could find. And I had no shame about asking friends in the police and forensic science service for their advice.
Why did you make Bath Peter Diamond’s home turf?
I know Bath well because for 20 years I lived in a village close by. It’s a city of history and grace, without many mean streets, but not without murder—and I’m not talking fiction here. And it also has an underside of vaults and underground mine-workings. Most people I meet have heard of Bath and many have been there and remember its beautiful buildings. This year I led my first guided walk around some of the Peter Diamond sites and the response was encouraging—30 intrepid fans with umbrellas in the rain of an English summer—so more walks are planned.
The plot of The Stone Wife turns largely on 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s history in and around the county of Somerset. Can I assume that you were not a Chaucer expert at the time you began composing this novel, and needed to do considerable research on the man and his era?
I’m not an expert on anything except the history of track and field, but I studied Chaucer a bit at school and university and taught The Canterbury Tales a little as well. If nothing else, I knew what I wanted to research and it was Chaucer’s connection, if any, with Bath, where I set the books.
Did your conception of The Stone Wife begin with a curiosity about Chaucer, or somewhere else?
In previous books in the series, I’ve featured other literary figures such as Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and William Beckford, each of whom had strong associations with the city. The notion of a Wife of Bath book was with me for some time, but I couldn’t see how I could make it work. Then the thought came to me that a stone carving of the wife might be so precious that people would bid high for it in an auction and someone would be murdered. The next stage would be the carving taking on a personality of its own and giving Diamond a hard time.
You spend a good chunk of The Stone Wife focusing on Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith, a comely former journalist and member of Diamond’s team. She goes incognito to trace the guns employed in the auction house holdup. The task is fraught with risk, but it shows Ingeborg to be quite capable. It also, though, leaves Diamond offstage for much of this book. Do you think that was wise? He is, after all, supposed to be the reason why readers pick up your series.
Whether it was wise or not, this was the way to go. I’ve given other members of the team solo assignments before. Remember Paul Gilbert alone on Lansdown in Skeleton Hill ? Or Ingeborg with Paul, checking out the Somerset Sniper’s haunts along Walcot Street in Cop to Corpse ? I’d hate to be writing to a formula that compelled me to have Diamond at center stage right through.
How attentive are you to getting your modern police procedures correct? Or is that a subject on which you expect readers to allow you some creative leeway?
Let’s say I do my best. Most police procedure is boring and it’s my job to make the story a page-turner. I’ve studied the manuals and attended the lectures and I hope I know the main things that will make a policeman scream out in protest if I offend. Many years ago, I was given good advice by one of the grande dames of crime writing, Christianna Brand: “Police procedure? Oh, I don’t bother with that, my darling. I simply put in: ‘Meanwhile the police continued patiently with their enquiries.’ ”
Is it realistic to suppose that a chief superintendent like Diamond would keep his superior in the dark, as he is so often prone to do with Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore?
Now you’re forcing me into a corner. Probably it isn’t. But then Georgina isn’t like most ACCs. Diamond always supplies enough information to satisfy her and the administration of justice.
Finally, I have to ask: What book project are you working on now?
I completed Down Among the Dead Men, my 2015 book, and we’ve started the copy-editing. Hey-ho, it’s time to think about the next one.