Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheSevenBodies
Bertie and the Seven Bodies
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1990
Bertie, Prince of Wales #2
Preceded by Bertie and the Tin Man
Followed by Bertie and the Crime of Passion

A few months ago I read and reviewed the first of Peter Lovesey’s novels that featured Bertie, Prince of Wales as a sleuth. Bertie and the Tin Man was a highly entertaining read, rich in humor and character, but the mystery itself disappointed.

Bertie and the Seven Bodies is the second of the three novels and I am happy to say that the plotting here is far stronger. It probably didn’t hurt that I find a week’s shooting holiday to be of more interest than the world of Victorian horse racing!

Once again Lovesey uses the device of presenting his story as a memoir of the case written by Bertie himself in later life. This enables him to inject his narrative with plenty of character, having Bertie pause at points to reflect on events and to go off on little tangents. Lovesey also has fun presenting us with situations where he has Bertie’s words and actions in the past contradict what the older Bertie claims he was doing.

The events the older Bertie recounts to us take place at a shooting party being held in the country house of an attractive young widow. During the dinner that takes place on the first evening Queenie Chimes, an actress who plays bit parts in West End productions, collapses face-first into their dessert and is rushed to a doctor for medical treatment. Near her place setting is a scrap of newspaper with the word Monday written on it and while the guests do not realize it yet, this is just the first in a series of murders that will take place during that party.

Before long Bertie has decided he will take command of the situation and find the killer himself. This is, in part, due to the practical consideration that he wishes to avoid scandalous press coverage of his proximity to several murders but it is also a reflection of his supreme (and somewhat misguided) belief in his own abilities.

Lovesey illustrates Bertie’s overconfidence in his detective prowess early in the novel with several sequences in which he attempts to make Holmesian deductions about people based on small pieces of physical evidence. These scenes are not only quite entertaining, they also establish one of the running themes of the Bertie novels – that those who orbit around him are obliged to be deferential to him regardless of his actual skill as a detective. In fact the reader may justifiably feel that Bertie’s role as detective is, in part, responsible for the book’s high body count as at several points he moves to reassure the other guests that he has identified the guilty party and it is all over.

A quick look at various Goodreads reviews shows that Bertie is quite a divisive protagonist with multiple reviewers labelling him as ‘unlikable’. Certainly he is a pompous figure and his philandering ways will likely prompt some eye-rolling but he can also be quite charming and self-aware showing that he is all too aware of some of his weaknesses. The comparison I would draw would be to the television character Frasier who possessed several similar faults – the fun is in them seeking to maintain their dignity in the face of potential humiliations such as their amorous misadventures.

As the title suggests, multiple murders await the reader and a large part of the fun is in figuring out who the next victim will be and how they will be disposed of. I appreciated the variety of methods utilized and how well this aspect of the novel pastiches elements found in several Christie works.

Lovesey provides us with an interesting mix of suspects from a variety of backgrounds and personality types. I might argue that the female characters are a little stronger and more richly drawn than the males though that really reflects Bertie’s greater interest in getting to know them. Each character is treated seriously as a suspect however and I think several possess interesting motivations.

The solution to the puzzle is quite clever and fairly clued but I did find that I guessed at it after drawing a parallel to another work. This didn’t hugely bother me as I think the manner of the confrontation at the end is interesting but it did dull the impact of the revelation a little. Your mileage may vary however and if you have not read the book it draws from it will likely come as quite a satisfying revelation.

While this is the second book in a series, you do not need to have read the first in order to understand this and so I would suggest that you skip ahead to this one. Also, if you are an audiobook fan I can recommend the splendid readings of the first two books in this series by Terrence Hardiman whose plummy, rich voice is a perfect fit for Bertie and he handles the comedic elements brilliantly

Overall I found Bertie and the Seven Bodies to be a funnier, more tightly plotted outing than his first. It is not just a very good Christie pastiche, it is a fine mystery novel in its own right and I think it managed to blend its comedic and serious elements together very well to create something quite special and surprisingly original.

Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheTinman
Bertie and the Tinman
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1987
Bertie Prince of Wales #1
Followed by Bertie and the Seven Bodies

I am typically a little wary of historical mystery novels that feature historical figures or events prominently. There are certainly some very good stories that have used them thoughtfully but all too often I feel that it becomes an excuse to indulge in historical celebrity-spotting. While Bertie and the Tinman features a number of real life figures I am happy to say that they are generally used in a very thoughtful and restrained way.

The premise of this short series from Peter Lovesey was that Bertie, the Prince of Wales, fancied himself an amateur detective and had several adventures that he recorded in book form and had sealed away for a hundred years to avoid causing any disgrace. This period now being at an end, we are reading what purports to be a historical account complete with a charming editor’s note at the end that suggests that there are reasons to doubt its authenticity (not least that we should doubt that Bertie possessed the drive to complete a manuscript himself) and outlines the fates of the various characters following the end of this adventure.

The incident that this story revolves around is actually drawn from the history books, the apparent suicide of famed jockey Fred Archer as a result of delirium brought on by illness. Lovesey weaves his narrative around those historical details very skillfully to create a rich and believable story. The question is why a man who was regarded as the most skilled rider of his era would suddenly commit suicide when he seemed to be recovering from a bout of illness. While I do not share Lovesey’s love of sporting history, I think this initial premise is intriguing and certainly it provides a cast of colorful characters for us to encounter.

Bertie, the Prince of Wales, is on the face of it rather an unlikely detective and I did worry that I would find it hard to take him seriously in that role or that there would be some alterations to his character to make it work. Instead Lovesey makes a virtue of those deficiencies, presenting us with a slightly different model of investigator. He is not a great thinker, though he is certainly intelligent, nor does he possess much drive or application in conducting his investigations as at several points he hands off work to others to perform on his behalf.

He does possess the advantage of access and status however that will prove a boon to him in his investigations. In addition, he is genuinely intrigued by the circumstances of this mystery and concerned for Archer’s reputation in death. The combination of those traits made him credible to me and I appreciated that Lovesey does not gloss over his flaws.

In fact it is those flaws within Bertie that make him the most compelling aspect of this story as he has one of those wonderful narrative voices that drips with personality. This is a man who feels frustrated in his position, keen to acquire a purpose and meaningful duties yet often acting quite irresponsibly. He can be quite self-aware and charming yet he can also be an incorrigible ass, particularly in the way he treats his wife. The result is a hero, of sorts, that we can laugh with and at but whose investigation is serious and credible.

There are some memorable moments along the way, not least when his mother makes an appearance as well as some of his bedroom antics (which are written to tread the line perfectly, being more bawdy than explicit). The biographical details of Bertie’s life are well researched and the novel touches on many aspects of Victorian life and culture including the music hall scene and spiritualism.

As entertaining as Lovesey’s prose and dialog can be, I think that judged purely on the mystery elements the book would be found wanting. Perhaps because Bertie possesses more limited powers of deduction than the likes of Cribb, the solution to the mystery is unlikely to dazzle or shock the reader. Alternatively, perhaps Lovesey’s care to ensure that the solution fits the historical facts is responsible. Either way, the final third of the book lacks much of the spark and excitements of the earlier sections though I was charmed by his use of a challenge to the reader presented in the form of a bathtub realization.

Ultimately it is the charm of the novel that carries the day and makes it easy to overlook some of the weaknesses of the mystery at its heart. Bertie is instantly recognizable, credible and amusing so it is never a chore to spend time in his company while Lovesey’s attention to the details of the historical setting and character is superb. A very entertaining effort.