Peter Lovesey started out by making a killing in sports. Actually, more than one killing. And some of those crimes were shocking, though their recounting didn’t lack for entertaining elements.
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The now 74-year-old British author concocted his first novel, Wobble to Death (1970), as an entry in a publisher’s contest. Beginning with the slaying of an athlete in one of Victorian England’s remarkable six-day walking competitions (“wobbles”), it introduced the solid and slyly ingenious copper, Sergeant Cribb, and his somewhat less astute assistant, Constable Thackeray.
After Wobble to Death picked up first prize, Lovesey produced more Cribb novels, all set in the late 1870s and early ’80s, and back-dropped by such Victorian diversions as bare-knuckle pugilism, rowing on the Thames and dabblings in the occult. Perhaps the best entry in that series, though, was its last one: Waxwork (1978), which found Cribb re-investigating a homicide—before the hangman arrived to fit the supposed murderess with an unfashionable choker.
Many readers, including me, were saddened when Lovesey abandoned Cribb and Thackeray after only eight books and a short-lived (1980-1981) UK TV drama based on their exploits. But the author wasn’t inclined to take his series further. Instead, he wrote a succession of standalone historical mysteries to satisfy fans, including The False Inspector Dew (a brilliant 1982 work inspired by the notorious real-life case of Hawley Crippen) and Keystone (1983), which took place in the rough-and-tumble world of silent-film stuntmen.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the author presented a protagonist to rival Cribb. That year brought the release of The Last Detective, which took place in Bath, a former Roman spa resort west of London. Leading that modern-day story’s cast was Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, a petulant, overweight, middle-aged and technology averse cop who believes in wearing out shoe leather and wearing down suspects to solve a case, and is contemptuous, to say the least, of the community outreach and management-training techniques that have become such a large part of contemporary policing. From that start, Lovesey has grown a series combining fair-play puzzle themes with eccentric players, situations that demonstrate the clash between Britain’s past and present, and much humor mined from Diamond’s frustration in dealing with subordinates who are less old-fashioned in their ways of crime-solving.
The 11th Diamond outing, released this month, is Stagestruck. And while it’s not as unpredictable or profusely plotted as the last book, Skeleton Hill (2009), it would be a fine place for somebody unfamiliar with this series to begin reading. The case here centers around Bath’s venerable, 200-year-old Theatre Royal, where aging pop singer Clarion Calhoun is hoping to make a triumphant stage debut. On opening night, however, she suddenly starts clawing at her face and screaming, then collapses. The theater is chary of any resulting scandal, and Calhoun herself refuses interviews. But after it’s discovered that something caustic in her makeup caused Calhoun’s agony, Diamond is sent to determine whether a crime has been committed. Suspicion is quickly cast upon dresser Denise Pearsall, who applied the makeup. And after Pearsall takes a deadly fall backstage, it’s assumed she committed suicide out of guilt. Yet Diamond is far from convinced—and readers should be, too.
Lovesey has shown himself to be a master of mystery-making and misdirection, with the prizes to prove it. Stagestruck earns him more kudos for effectively deploying an ensemble cast, particularly journalist-turned-detective Ingeborg Smith. He’s less successful, though, in developing a subplot here about Diamond’s fear of theaters. Yes, it offers an unusual confrontation with a child molester, but it doesn’t do as much as some previous twists (the death of his supremely tolerant spouse in 2002’s Diamond Dust, for instance) to illuminate new depths in the short-fused detective’s character.
I still miss Cribb, but Diamond shines in his own way.