Tomorrow is the birthday of Peter Lovesey, whose distinguished career in mystery writing now stretches back nearly forty-five years, to 1970, when he published the wonderfully-titled--and simply wonderful--Wobble to Death, the first of his eight Sergeant Cribb Victorian mysteries, a series that ran until 1978 (the last novel in the series, Waxwork, is reviewed here).
Between 1982 to 1990 he published under his own name six crime novels: The False Inspector Dew (1982), Keystone (1983), Rough Cider (1986), Bertie and the Tinman (1987), On the Edge (1989) and Bertie and the Seven Bodies (1990). Of these books only the two Bertie--i.e., Albert Edward, Prince of Wales--mysteries were part of a series (a third, Bertie and the Crime of Passion, would follow in 1993).
The False Inspector Dew, Keystone, Rough Cider and On the Edge are standalones but all reflect Lovesey's interest in history and period settings in his mysteries. I intend to look at each of these interesting novels over the rest of the year, beginning with Lovesey's hugely praised The False Inspector Dew, which won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association.
The False Inspector Dew somewhat reminds me of HRF Keating's The Murder of the Maharaja (1980), which won the CWA Gold Dagger two years earlier, in that it too is a witty, virtuoso take on the classical mystery. After a very short opening section, which includes a dramatic episode on the torpedoed Lusitania (today this part inevitably would be called a prologue by the original publisher), Lovesey takes us to 1921 and introduces the various characters who will find themselves enmeshed in drama on the high seas, when they fatefully go aboard the SS Mauretania.
Our central figures are Walter Baranov, a henpecked English dentist ("Baranov" is a family stage name; Walter once worked the halls as a mentalist), and Alma Webster, a naive fan of the romance fiction of the much-ridiculed but much-read Ethel M. Dell.
Walter's wife, Lydia, is a faded stage actress of, to put it charitably, quite mercurial temperament, who has decided, based on the slenderest of hopes, that she can revive her moribund career in the American film business. Lydia controls the purse strings in the marriage, owning, along with the couple's house, Walter's dental practice, and she has announced that Walter must abandon his new vocation to become her agent in Hollywood. Walter refuses, so Lydia angrily declares she will go without him, selling his practice anyway (she says she needs the money for her American career promotion).
This sounds like classic suspense, and, indeed, the tale is plenty suspenseful. You likely will feel compelled to finish the book in one or two sittings.
Yet embedded in the text is a legitimate "fair play" mystery, for Walter Baranov, the false Inspector Dew, ends up investigating murder on the Mauretania (I won't say more, except that I found intriguing the development of Walter's character over the course of novel).
If you read carefully you definitely should hit upon part of the solution after about 200 pages or so, I think, but another aspect of the puzzle is harder to discern ahead of the author's grand revelation. A few readers have complained that this part of the novel is not "fair play," but I beg to differ. I was partially mystified too originally, but legitimately so.
The False Inspector Dew is a wonderful, witty, tricksy mystery novel (right down to the last line), a true high point in post-WW2 crime fiction for lovers of the classic form. This is one fictional voyage you do not want to miss.
Note: I should mention that Peter Lovesey contributed the coda essay, on the Detection Club, in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (McFarland 2014), which I edited. His substantial piece is a lovely homage to the Detection Club and to that great historian of the mystery genre, Doug Greene.