The very first book I reviewed on this blog was The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, the previous novel in Peter Lovesey’s Victorian detective series featuring Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray. Subsequently I went back and reread the first book in the series, the wonderful Wobble to Death, and have been intending to return to the series for quite a while but other books have a habit of jumping to the front of the queue.
As it happens it is a bit of a shame that it has taken me so long to get to this one as it’s far funnier than either of its predecessors and achieves a much better balance between its historical and mystery elements too. Though I imagine Music Hall may be a little more familiar to modern readers than the wobbles were, this is still Lovesey delving deep into an aspect of Victoriana and bringing that world to life with wonderful details about the business in that time.
The novel opens with an amusing sequence in which Constable Thackeray’s spelling and vocabulary is being examined in a class for constables seeking to be promoted within the force. Soon rescue comes in the form of Sergeant Cribb requesting his assistance on a case but he is somewhat baffled when they end up attending an evening’s performance at a music hall.
It turns out that the Police received a warning that something would happen on the stage that evening and that Cribb was concerned that there had been a series of strange accidents taking place at different music halls across the city. Before the evening is out those warnings are realized as a performer is savaged on stage by an aggressive dog that had been placed in a box that was supposed to house his own more docile hound.
There is of course far more to this story than initially appears and though there is no body in sight there are still plenty of points of interest to explore as well as a very colorful cast of characters to encounter. One of my favorites was a retired military man who has set himself up as a private investigator and who proves to be something of a master of disguise, even if his other detective skills may leave something to be desired. He crops up again and again throughout the book and by the end I was anticipating how he might appear again.
While I didn’t have any difficulty predicting what lay behind the accidents, however unlikely that explanation seemed, I was pleased at a development that happens in the final third of the novel that sets things on a slightly different course. This is not a sudden twist aimed at stretching the story out but it is woven into the tale from the beginning and ties up some seemingly loose ends from earlier in the novel very neatly. It struck me as a very satisfying conclusion and I loved the little coda with Cribb and his superior that followed.
As entertaining as the mystery is, the aspect of the book that will stick with me the most are the wonderful humorous situations that are developed, particularly a lengthy sequence with Thackeray set during a theatrical performance. Sadly I can’t discuss it without spoiling an important plot development but I loved that the humor of this scene also reflected his character, demonstrating one of the reasons I am so fond of him as a sidekick.
I also found Cribb much funnier than in some of his other outings, both in his manipulation of Thackeray but also in his dealings with the rather lusty proprietress of a theatrical boarding house. Certainly he is given far more to do than in the previous novel and while that usually involves him shirking his duties or palming them off on his subordinates, at least he’s present for most of the case. As a result the character seems to steer this adventure in a way he didn’t in either of the two preceding stories.
There are some issues. While I enjoyed the process of getting to the answer and correctly guessed it, I think it would be fair to say that the explanation for the music hall accidents is pretty unconvincing. Certainly I think there were alternate, easier ways to achieve their ultimate goal. Still, I think overall I would class this as unlikely but not implausible and it didn’t seriously affect my enjoyment of the tale.
While I think Wobble to Death is a more unique tale and so hard to pass over, I think that this is the book where the elements Lovesey was developing really came together. The mystery is good enough that it managed to hold my interest even without a body and I laughed far more than in either of its predecessors. Also, the Cribb and Thackeray partnership feels more developed to me, partly because they are on the scene from the start of this book.
If you are interested in reading more about Cribb, check out this piece on The Passing Tramp that compares him and Sergeant Beef – two characters I would never have thought of placing alongside each other to compare before reading this piece. Curtis states his opinion that the later Cribb books are even better so I’ll look forward to reaching some of those in the months to come.