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It’s a Mystery: “A good detective assumes nothing”

By (July 1, 2012) No Comment

Cop to Corpse

By Peter Lovesey
Soho Crime, 2012

It begins:
Hero to zero.
Cop to corpse.
One minute PC Harry Tasker is strolling up Walcot Street, Bath, on foot patrol. The next he is shot through the head. No scream, no struggle, no last words. He is picked off, felled, dead.

Someone is gunning down the cops on the beat in the venerable city of Bath. Tasker is the third one in as many months. Who and why are the chilling questions chief superintendent Peter Diamond of Bath’s CID is frantically trying to answer. So far, there is nothing to connect the victims save their occupations. But Diamond, whose métier is the unorthodox approach, isn’t buying the theory that the so-called Somerset Sniper is a maniac randomly targeting the police. This pits him against the aptly named Jack Gull, “Supergull,” head honcho of the Serial Crimes Unit. As Diamond tells his team:

Serial killing is their business and serial killing is usually random…. They made up their minds before Harry Tasker was killed…. They’re so sure that they don’t even consider checking whether victim three has anything in common with victim one or victim two – apart from being a cop.

When Diamond has his “arms folded and jaw-jutting in Churchillian defiance” no one argues with him. He has remained, since the beginning of the series 20 years ago, an old-fashioned policeman. Then—The Last Detective from 1991—as now, he remains impatient with forensic delays, hostile to computers, and slightly unscrupulous when it comes to the proper handling of evidence. “Common sense and door-stepping. That’s how we get results.” As his favorite forensic pathologist, Jack Merlin, says of him early on in the series:

You’re the end of an era…a genuine gumshoe, not some lad out of police school with a degree in computer studies.

And if that “genuine gumshoe” is the series’ most engaging character, local color and abundant humor are also Lovesey’s hallmarks. Cop to Corpse abounds in the details of the history of Diamond’s turf that are as fascinating as they are pivotal to pursuing the sniper. A mine that is still in use as an underground stone quarry is a secret means of approach and escape for both suspects and detectives. For a man of Diamond’s girth (he no longer resembles the rugby player he once was) navigating is tricky, especially at 2 A.M., with his nimble colleague, John Leaman, playing tour guide cum bodyguard:

They hid the Crown Jewels here during the war…the mine had to be air conditioned and kept at a special temperature. It’s amazing what was stored here, all crated up, of course. They built a narrow-gauge railway underground to transport the stuff. The Elgin Marbles, the statue of Charles I and the Banqueting Hall ceiling from Whitehall, the bronze screen from the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

The level of detail was persuasive, but Diamond remained skeptical. “Who told you this?”

“One of the Wiltshire sergeants who knows the village…. The British Museum supplied most of the security and our people had to help at night.”

“I thought they used the London tube to store the treasures.”

“They did until 1942. Then they decided it was safer to move them here.”

“I’m starting to believe this—as if it matters now.” Diamond stepped back from the main door to the mine…. I’d better get a move on.”

“I don’t advise it, guv. It’s bloody dangerous. If you don’t fall over, you’ll get shot by the firearms team.”

“Radio ahead and tell them I’m on my way.”

“I can’t come with you,” Leaman said. “The men expect to find me here.”

“I don’t need a bloody attendant, John.”

But, of course, he does. He’s stubborn and foolhardy and doesn’t listen to that inner voice that is warning him:

He was a raving idiot to be doing this alone…if the sniper didn’t get him, some trigger-happy firearms officer would… Friendly fire they termed it. A classic oxymoron, and not a good way to go. Better not stop for a rest.

Diamond doesn’t know it but he and his colleagues have a long way to go before they trap the murderer. They have some hairy close calls and a veritable smorgasbord of red herrings to get through. Diamond, in his inimitable fashion, using everything but a divining rod, does crack the connection between the victims, and it is delightfully mind-boggling.

Cop to Corpse is laced with the surprises that always lie in wait in a Lovesey novel. It is Lovesey’s signature that the killer is improbable but the clues to his/her identity were there before your very eyes. When you look back, you will see that he has played fair, but I defy anyone to anticipate the solution. It’s always part of the fun in reading him.

Wobble to Death marked Mr. Lovesey’s fiction debut in 1970. A former English teacher, Lovesey wrote the book hoping to win a ₤1,000 fiction-writing prize (he did). The title derives from the name, “wobbles,” given to six-day walking competitions that were held in Britain in the 1880s. The fatal poisoning of a “champion pedestrian” during such an event introduced readers to the Victorian policeman, Sergeant Cribb—40ish, not eccentric but with a sense of humor all his own—and his diligent assistant, Constable Thackeray. The work of detection is properly interwoven with sound characterization, class prejudices, and love affairs. The suspense of learning who will win the race is, believe it or not, as intense as unmasking the murderer. Cribb and Thackeray went on to appear in seven more adventures. The last, Waxwork (1978), is considered one of Lovesey’s best books in the Cribb series.

In a writing career spanning four decades Lovesey has created a stylish and varied body of work that includes three Edwardian comedies of manner and mystery; a Hollywood silent-movie-era-caper; a 1920s ocean-liner adventure; and four volumes of short stories. He has won the Crime Writer’s Association’s Silver, Gold and Diamond Daggers along with the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic.

But it is his Peter Diamond series that is his pièce de résistance. That Mr. Lovesey would make a midcareer transition from period fiction to contemporary police investigations is not surprising. His idiosyncratic works show him to be a wizard at sudden mood shifts. Having had success with eight Cribb novels, Lovesey wanted to “write something a bit more serious.” Although a series wasn’t initially contemplated when he introduced Diamond in 1991 (he had him kicked off the force by the end of The Last Detective), he followed it with Diamond Solitaire (1992) and a star in the sleuth firmament was born.

Of all twelve Diamond novels including this superlative latest, one of my favorites is Bloodhounds (1996). It skillfully pays homage to the golden age of impossible crime classics.  It is a well-crafted, witty takeoff on the locked room mystery perfected by John Dickson Carr. A rare stamp and a corpse are discovered in Bath within hours of each other. As he investigates, Inspector Diamond discovers that both the person who found the stamp and the victim belong to an elite group of crime-novel lovers, the Bloodhounds. The body lies inside a padlocked houseboat, and the key belongs to a man with an airtight alibi. Apart from the nifty solution, one of the chief pleasures of this novel is its insight into Lovesey’s take on crime fiction. His predilictions, as it were, vis-a-vis the Bloodhound’s meetings. And what aficionado of the traditional English mystery can resist a novel that includes a dog named Marlowe?

I do have a small bone to pick with Mr. Lovesey. In Diamond Dust (2002), he kills Peter’s beloved wife Stephanie, a delicious mainstay of the series. Why?  Elizabeth George did this with her Detective Inspector Lynley’s wife in With No One as Witness (2005). I confess, I am not a fan of offing major characters for no good reason.

Caveat aside, Lovesey takes structural chances with his writing. He’s earned the right to innovate in his genre, and he pushes narrative boundaries and pulls it off. No one is better at mixing puzzle and procedural.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.