Our mystery today is The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey, new from the wonderful folks at Soho Crime, the fourteenth of Lovesey’s novels to star stolid CID Superintendent Peter Diamond and his equally-stolid crew of investigators based in the lovely, historic old city of Bath. There’s pretty, intelligent Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith, and there’re veteran officers John Leaman and Keith Halliwell, and there’s ever-eager rookie Paul Gilbert, and although they all get speaking parts in these novels, the lot of them together are less memorable than a stalk of celery. Lovesey’s Bath police procedurals operate on a strictly cash-and-carry basis: you buy or borrow one, you get your ‘hook’ of an opening scene and your tepid mystery, you follow an investigation as humidly plodding as the one you and your less imaginative friends might concoct yourselves, you get a couple of resolutely nondescript concluding twists, and then you put the thing in the box of stuff going to the next church rummage sale. And by the time that rummage sale rolls around, you won’t be able to recall a single detail from that book, not if your life depended on it.
The opening scene in The Stone Wife revolves around the title figure: an old stone carving of a figure art experts reckon is the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The object has sat in storage for fifty years, unrecognized, but now it’s up for sale at a Bath auction parlor, and the bidding is growing unexpectedly fierce when a group of masked and armed gunmen interrupt the proceedings. When the most aggressive bidder argues with them, they shoot him and then run off without the stone carving – and soon Peter Diamond and his team are on the scene, trying to figure out not only who the gunmen were but why the bidder was foolish enough to try to stop them.
The investigation – such as it is, such as it ever is in the Lovesey book – takes two directions: first, Diamond his men try to figure out the provenance and provocations of the stone Wife of Bath, and second, in one of those very long and very preposterous sub-plots some mystery authors simply can’t be convinced to abandon, Ingeborg goes under cover in an attempt to trace the gun used in the shooting.
So one half of the book is just more of the same plodding police questions interspersed with pretty much the only piece of ‘personality’ Lovesey bothers to give Diamond, which is that he dislikes computers and most modern technology, especially as means of doing anything as useful as solving crimes (this is tiresomely foreshadowed even in the title of the first Diamond mystery, The Last Detective):
Diamond went over to the desk and switched on the computer. He was no expert, but he knew the basics these days and after the condescending remark about e-books he intended to demonstrate that he wasn’t out of the Stone Age.
And the other half of the book is Ingeborg in disguise, working her way with almost Clouseau-level implausibility into the heart of a heartless criminal enterprise. We never for one instant believe any single part of this half of the book – Ingeborg remains so thoroughly and obviously a cop the whole time that you’re constantly expecting the bad guys to start giggling at the ineptitude of her disguise. And it doesn’t help that in these sections Lovesey’s prose is on near-complete autopilot in a way he’d dream of doing with his male characters:
She held her breath and took the first heart-stopping steps out onto the stretch of deck where the filming had taken place. So far, so good. For a short distance she would have the great black funnel between herself and the gangway. After that only a series of skylights projected above deck level. Her movement was more like gliding than striding, a steady progress towards the aft end of the ship. Good thing she wasn’t wearing heels. The smallest sound would have been like drumming on the deck. She was prepared any second to be caught by the flashlight beam. You can’t escape the speed of light.
All of which isn’t to say The Stone Wife and all the other Peter Diamond mysteries don’t offer anything to their readers. I’ve read all of these books quite willingly over the years, as good near-mindless fun. As an old friend of mine once said when confronted with his sweet-tooth for this kind of fiction, “Sometimes, what really hits the spot is a murder mystery with very little murder – and very little mystery!”
Very little murder, and very little mystery – Peters Diamond and Lovesey strike again!