Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheTinmanI 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.

Abracadaver by Peter Lovesey

abracadaverThe 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.

Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey

I have previously written about the second of the Cribb novels, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers in my very first post on this blog, so I felt I needed to come up with a good reason to jump back in the series order to revisit the first novel.

My excuse came when my parents were visiting as they brought over DVDs of the Sergeant Cribb series. I had fond memories of these adaptations having viewed them when I was first getting excited about crime fiction and I was curious to see whether they lived up to my memory.

The Novel

WobbleWobble to Death is a novel with a really striking concept. Actually, I think a case can be made that the setting for this story is so interesting and unusual the mystery aspect of the novel inevitably plays a sort of second fiddle to the descriptions and period details that fill the book.

The story is set during a pedestrianism contest, also known as a ‘wobble’, in which competitors walk around an indoor track for several days to win a cash prize and title. Lovesey depicts the event as colorful and attracting an interesting mix of competitors and the book is at its best when discussing some of the mechanics of the event and the personalities of the people who choose to participate.

Early in the race (though quite a way into the novel) one of the front-runners dies and soon the Police have cause to believe the deceased was murdered. Rather than stop the proceedings, the race continues to proceed resulting in some comical moments where Sergeant Thackeray has to interrogate witnesses while walking the circuit himself.

Cribb is a slightly unorthodox lead investigator in that he delegates much of his work to his long-suffering assistant Thackeray and has a somewhat lazy approach to his profession. This sort of laid back approach to sleuthing does suit the author’s focus and the two make for an entertaining and likeable pair.

With so much attention being given to the mechanics of the race, including regular summaries of the racers’ positions given at the end of chapters, unsurprisingly the mystery suffers a little and feels quite simple. This is a shame because there are some really memorable characters amongst the suspects and the explanation of what has happened seems a little bland when considered against the story’s backdrop.

The Adaptation

CribbMy strongest memory of watching this production was how well the setting was realized and while I think the grime of the walking track doesn’t quite live up to the filth described in the book, I still think this does a good job of visualizing the novel.

Unfortunately I think the adaptation does suffer a little for being compressed to fit a forty-five minute format. Firstly, the adaptation has Cribb and Thackeray in the building observing the race on the off-chance of something happening which avoids some repetition of the basic facts of the case but feels rather odd. Second, we lose some of the business that happens around the murders between the competitors. Finally, there are just fewer interviews which, combined with the previous point, means that the competitors do not feel anywhere near as fully formed as they do in the novel.

Turning to the casting, Alan Dobie captures some of Cribb’s indolent personality but the character’s most defining characteristic – his piccadilly weepers, a sort of long, bushy side-whisker – are conspicuous in their absence. I do think that having him proactively be present at the scene of the crime it actually undermines the character’s relaxed attitude towards his work though I can understand that the pacing of the novel makes it hard to convert into short-form television.

I do think that some of the supporting cast here are excellent however, particularly Michael Elphick as the promoter, Sol Herriot. When I read the book I visualize the character just as he appears here both in style and manner so that casting worked perfectly for me. Kenneth Cranham is similarly very good in the part of the Doctor, Francis Mostyn-Smith although it took me a while to decipher who it was through the facial hair!

While I still think this is an entertaining piece of television, especially the moody chase sequence towards the end, I do think that the mystery becomes hard to follow as a result of the trims. After Cribb collars the criminal, Thackeray questions how Cribb came by the solution and I think based on what the audience sees we may wonder the same whereas the book felt decidedly fair.

The Detective Work Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey

DrawersA few years ago Soho Crime reissued the Cribb stories with some rather smart new cover designs. While I was familiar with the character from the television series, I had never really dipped into the books that had inspired them and so I decided to pick up the first few titles in the series.

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers is the second of the Sergeant Cribb stories and while it possesses some charms of its own, it never gripped my imagination the way that Wobble to Death did. In part that reflects that this story’s setting and sporting theme, bare-knuckle boxing, is a little less strange and a little more familiar to us. I think the book also disappointed me a little in that it is structured as more of a thriller than a mystery.

The story begins with the discovery of a headless corpse in the Thames. We soon learn that the body shows signs of having engaged in bare-knuckle fighting and Cribb decides to send a man undercover to try to identify the corpse and find the culprit.

The man that Cribb recruits is the somewhat familiarly-named Henry Jago. Given that I am a huge Doctor Who fan, this choice of name became quite distracting to me although Lovesey is absolutely not to blame for this as this book came out quite a few years before the Talons of Weng-Chiang serial was made. For what it’s worth the character was quite charming and while it was strange to see so much of the narrative given over to a brand new character, I enjoyed spending time in his company even though it comes at Cribb and Thackeray’s expense.

Unfortunately I was less interested in the crime at the heart of this story. While the house that Jago finds himself staying in while undercover is admittedly quite strange and curious, the case that he investigates offered few diversions or unexpected developments and there is very little reasoning to be done by the reader.

While The Detective Wore Silk Drawers is not a bad book, it falls short of the high standard established by the first story. Fans of Victorian or sporting mysteries may find something to enjoy here, though I cannot recommend it more broadly.