In 1969, Peter Lovesey’s mystery fan wife, Jax, pointed out a notice to her husband that read: “Macmillan and Panther Books announce a First Crime Novel Competition open to all nationals of the United Kingdom, Commonwealth and the Republics of Eire and South Africa.” Lovesey, a teacher at a technical college, was reluctant to respond although he did have some background in the genre.
During WWII, his family home had been bombed out by the Germans. “I had only two books [left] to choose from to read, neither of which interested me at first. Eventually, I was so bored, I picked them up in desperation. To my delight, Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall turned out to be about a famous defense lawyer, and what I thought was a religious tract, Elias the Saint, was actually Alias the Saint, featuring the adventurer Simon Templar.”
Between that war and 1969, Lovesey read some Agatha Christie, but not much else in the field. He had one published nonfiction book, a comprehensive history of the now-obscure sport of long-distance walking. With that research fresh in his mind, Lovesey, deciding to enter the contest, used a Victorian walking marathon as the scene of his first crime, with “the enclosed site of the competition allowing for a classic closed circle of suspects, sort of like an isolated mansion in a Poirot story.” The book that resulted, Wobble to Death, introduced Scotland Yard’s laconic but insightful Sergeant Cribb and launched Lovesey’s writing career, which in the subsequent 40 years has yielded honor after honor, including Lifetime Achievement Awards from Malice Domestic and the Crime Writers Association.
In Cop to Corpse (Soho Press), the 12th in Lovesey’s current series, the irascible Det. Supt. Peter Diamond of Bath must track down a sniper targeting cops, who has gunned down three officers in as many months.
Having had success with eight Cribb novels, Lovesey wanted to do different things. “I was looking to write something a bit more serious,” he remembers. So he introduced Peter Diamond in1991’s The Last Detective. Although a series wasn’t initially contemplated (“I had him kicked off the force by the end of the book”), Diamond Solitaire followed two years later and the series took off from there. The Diamond books offer a novel element each time, including, in Bloodhounds, homage to the golden age of impossible crime classics by John Dickson Carr. Pitting wits against both Peters (author and character) is one of the genuine pleasures for classic mystery fans, who always seek to correctly anticipate the solution. (With Lovesey, it’s the rare one who does.)
Apart from his writing gifts, Lovesey has a well-deserved reputation as a good guy. His editor, Juliet Grames, says, “Peter is the nicest man in the world, and very hard-working. For example, he insisted on helping the ALA booth setter-uppers carry around the boxes of his books.” And she adds, “He writes the cleanest manuscripts I have ever worked on. Each comma has been thought through, let alone each clue. My job is easy, there’s almost no editing involved, and I get to focus on the other aspects of being his editor.”
That niceness, appropriately, isn’t on display in his Diamond books, where he hasn’t hesitated to dispatch his victims in gruesome fashion. For Lovesey, “the discovery of a dead waitress hanging by her neck from the crossbar of a swing set in a public playground,” which starts the body count in 2007’s The Secret Hangman, is one of his most grisly. He also hasn’t blanched at shaking things up by offing major characters, as in 2002’s Diamond Dust. Grames again: “Constructing a successful fair-play mystery is really arduous work, and isn’t found much these days. Also, Peter takes structural chances with his writing. He’s earned the right to innovate his genre, and he pushes narrative boundaries and pulls it off.”
From the woman who started it all, Jax Lovesey, comes the last word. Asked whether she ever could have dreamed that her suggestion would lead to all this, she says, “For me it was never a dream because I had total confidence he would succeed as a writer.”