The Tick of Death by Peter Lovesey

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.

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.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday by Peter Lovesey

Originally Published 1973
Inspector Cribb #4
Preceded by Abracadaver
Followed by Invitation to a Dynamite Party

Brighton, 1882: Albert Moscrop spends his holiday peering at beachgoers through a telescope, piecing together disarmingly trivial observations into a compelling drama for his own amusement. A keen student of human nature, Moscrop concentrates his interest on one particular family—the Protheros, especially the beautiful Zena Prothero, whose husband appears to take her for granted. Moscrop gradually moves into the circle of the Prothero family, only to become involved in a sensational murder. All of Brighton is horrified by the gruesome crime, and the local police seek the help of Scotland Yard’s Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray, who soon find themselves challenged by the strangest case of their careers, one as mystifying as it is macabre.

Peter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb stories hold a special place in this blogger’s affections as a book from that series was the subject of the very first post on this blog. Since then I have reviewed several other titles in the series but given it has been eight months since I last revisited the character I thought it was time to read another in the series.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday begins by introducing us to Albert Moscrop, a young man who has travelled to the seaside to people watch with his telescope and binoculars. During one of his observations he notices a young woman he had encountered briefly and follows her with his lens. He eventually contrives a meeting and introduces himself to her, learning about her husband and children as well as an issue that has been worrying her.

The first third of the novel builds up our understanding of these characters and suggests some points of conflict between them. We may well be wondering what crime is likely to be committed but when this section of the novel ends and Cribb is introduced we have little knowledge of what crime he is investigating, let alone how it relates back to these opening chapters of the novel.

It turns out that a severed arm has been discovered in a reptile display yet there is no sign that this might have been an accident or of the remainder of the body. While it is clear that someone has been killed, the Police have little idea who the body might belong to, let alone who is responsible. Fortunately for him, Mr. Moscrop is keen to share some evidence with him…

One of the joys of Lovesey’s historical mystery writing is his ability to depict and explore some of the more eccentric aspects of life in the period. Previous titles in this series have explored sporting events and the music halls but what this novel does particularly well is to convey the novelty of a spyglass or binoculars would have had at this time. For instance, the other characters are shown as being intrigued to take a look through a lens for themselves and Moscrop is still experimenting with different degrees of magnification.

While the idea of a man using a spyglass to watch people on a beach has uncomfortable and sinister connotations, Lovesey pitches Moscrop as a social introvert whose usual interest is to simply crowdwatch both to test his lenses and to feel that he is among the people. We are told that the intense interest he shows in Mrs Prothero is a new sensation for him and readers may be disturbed by some of his actions in observing and interacting with her. For instance there is a moment early in the novel where he decides to kidnap her unattended infant son to enable him to return the child and gain an introduction.

Moscrop is not intended to be the story’s hero however and once Cribb arrives he serves a different role within the novel, providing some of the information he has gathered to the police to help with their inquiries. They, understandably, are uncertain how to interpret his actions and behavior and consider him a suspect in that investigation.

The Protheros prove an interesting bunch. Dr. Prothero, for instance, is a vocal proponent of many of the medical ideas of his day and has an obsession with the idea that swimming in the sea is dangerous to one’s health. His son is fifteen but speaks like an adult and has little time for his stepmother who, we learn, is Dr. Prothero’s third wife. As for their nursemaid, Dr. Prothero insisted on her appointment and will not consider dismissing her, even though she is often inattentive in her care for their infant son.

In my review of Lovesey’s previous Cribb novel, Abracadaver, I felt that the characters of Cribb and Thackeray benefited from being introduced at the start. This novel keeps them back with the consequence that Lovesey has to reestablish them at the moment at which we are learning about the crime, slowing down that section of the story. One pleasant aspect of this choice however is that the reader is able to draw upon what they have already learned from following Moscrop to make some assumptions about what the crime will be.

We soon learn that Cribb and Thackeray have been called in to investigate a severed arm found in the alligator enclosure at the aquarium. As Thackeray notes this is even less to go on than in a previous case where they had to work with a headless body. In spite of this, even before Moscrop shares his account with them they have already deduced quite a few things from this section of a body, if not its identity, demonstrating their abilities as detectives.

Those who have not read a Cribb story before may be surprised at the rather leisurely pacing of the investigation but I consider that part of these stories’ charm. Cribb has a rather relaxed, some might say lazy, approach to policing and tends to allow things to play out, only swooping into action when he perceives someone to be in danger or that the criminal might get away.

That is not to say however that Cribb is inactive in this investigation. One of my favorite sequences in the novel takes place in a bathhouse where Cribb is attempting to speak with one of the suspects and even when he doesn’t care to act himself he is more than willing to volunteer Constable Thackeray’s help. Several of those moments are very funny and help establish these characters for those who are not already familiar with them.

The solution Lovesey creates is quite clever and aspects of it are well-clued though I would argue that one part of the puzzle is rather too technical to be considered fair play. It is debatable however and some might argue that Lovesey does give a hint about the nature of the specialist knowledge one might need to work it out. It is, ultimately, only one element of a much bigger and rather satisfying mystery puzzle.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about the book is its rather odd title which conjures up images of Alice in Wonderland, reinforced by a Tenniel illustration appearing on the cover of my recent edition of the book. There are not only no Carroll references, there is also a striking absence of hats. The title appears to come from a line of dialogue in the second half of the book but even that is questionable because that line feels jammed in as if to justify the title. It is a minor thing but the title set the wrong expectations for me and I will admit to being a little disappointed that it really has no relationship to the content.

So, where does that leave me on Mad Hatter’s Holiday? I found aspects of the story and particularly of the historical setting to be very interesting and I appreciated Lovesey’s ability to play off and subvert some of the reader’s expectations about what had happened. It is not the best Cribb story I have read but it is certainly not the worst and while I will always begrudge a late introduction for Cribb and Thackeray they are at least used effectively once they do appear.

Abracadaver by Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1972
Inspector Cribb #3
Preceded by The Detective Wore Silk Drawers
Followed by Mad Hatter’s Holiday

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.

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

Wobble to Death
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1970
Sergeant Cribb #1
Followed by The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

Wobble 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


My 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 Wore Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1970
Sergeant Cribb #2
Preceded by Wobble to Death
Followed by Abracadaver

A 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.