Originally published in 1974
Also titled An Invitation to a Dynamite Party (UK)
Sergeant Cribb #5
Preceded by Mad Hatter’s Holiday
Followed by A Case of Spirits
London, 1884: A series of bomb blasts in public places is causing mayhem throughout the city. Even Scotland Yard’s CID office becomes a target, throwing suspicion on Constable Thackeray. The primary suspects are Irish terrorists seeking independence, but could the villain be someone else? A beautiful Irish woman? An American athlete? Sergeant Cribb reluctantly enrolls in a bomb-making course and infiltrates the Dynamite Party.
Based on the real events in London between 1884 – 1885, the story had its own resonance ninety years on.Blurb and cover from Soho Crime edition (2009)
The very first post on this blog was about one of Peter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb novels (The Detective Wore Silk Drawers) so it feels rather fitting to return to that series for post #501. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I needed some motivation to reread a book I remembered as one of the weakest in the series which that reasoning just about supplied.
The book begins in the aftermath of several bombings that have taken place across London in apparent support of the cause of Irish independence. Sergeant Cribb is recruited not only to learn more about how to make bombs but to also learn more about the activities of his former subordinate Sergeant Thackeray who is believed to be involved in the campaign. He soon identifies a group of suspicious individuals and finds himself infiltrating their group.
One of the reasons I was not particularly excited to return to this book is that I regard its mystery elements as incredibly slight. The questions posed at the start of the book are pretty simple – who are the dynamiters and how is Thackeray involved with their activities? Neither question proves to be particularly puzzling – we just need to wait to meet the very obvious suspects in the case of the first, and talk with Thackeray a couple of chapters in for the second (this explanation is one of my favorite parts of the book but it comes very easily and early in the novel). From that point onwards there is no puzzle to speak of at all – we are simply watching the action unfold and wondering how Cribb will get himself out of trouble.
That is, of course, not a problem if you have come to this book in search of a pretty competent historical thriller. Lovesey moves quite quickly to put Cribb in an intriguing and dangerous situation where he is forced undercover and he manages to emphasize the risks involved quite effectively. It is not dissimilar in fact to some parts of The Detective Wore Silk Drawers which also played with the idea of putting a detective undercover. However I think the choice to use Cribb himself for that task, as Lovesey does here, is better than inventing a third party for a one-off adventure.
The disadvantage with that approach however is that Cribb spends much of the book on his own, working under an assumed identity. Cribb’s personality is a huge part of what made the previous volumes in the series so much fun along with his interactions with Thackeray. While I think this has a tighter, tidier narrative than some of its predecessors, I found myself missing the lighter, more humorous exchanges Cribb would have in those stories. The few flashes we see of the old Cribb and a handful of appearances from Thackeray are certainly welcome but they also serve as a reminder of what is missing for much of the book. The material here is just less whimsical and fun.
As for the historical context, I do appreciate the author’s attempt to draw on some real events and the note included at the end of the book. The issue of home rule certainly defines the politics of this era, but I do not feel that I came away with a greater understanding of the period the way I normally do when I read entries from this series. Even the sporting elements, typically one of the strongest features of Lovesey’s early work, feel a little colorless and bland compared to the depictions of competitive pedestrianism in Wobble to Death or bare-knuckle boxing in The Detective Wore Silk Drawers. To be clear, I do not feel that the treatment here of those elements is bad but rather that there is little here to grab me beyond the core premise.
On the plus side, the author avoids unnecessarily stretching out the story and does a good job of keeping things moving forwards, building a strong sense of tension as we near the denouement. While there may not be much in the way of a puzzle for the reader to engage with, there are a few memorable sequences in the latter half of the book that have a page-turning quality.
The problem for this reader though is that the book simply doesn’t deliver on what I like about the Cribb stories. While Cribb may not be the greatest proponent of ratiocination, here he just seems to blunder through the case, getting carried to its end by accident, coincidence and coercion. As for the character himself, he feels conspicuously absent for much of the undercover portion of the novel, even though we are following his activities. Some detectives simply need a Watson and I believe this book demonstrates that Cribb falls firmly into that camp.
The Verdict: A competent historical thriller but it fell short for me both as a mystery and in the way it uses Cribb.