Peter Lovesey, who has written both period and contemporary mysteries during his long career, invades Agatha Christie territory with The Circle. Publisher Edgar Blacker is the victim of arson/murder shortly after speaking to a group of would-be writers in Chichester. Two additional killings by fire and two attempted murders follow.
Lovesey is a master at characterization and setting. Though Chichester is a sizable city, Lovesey presents it as a village not unlike Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead, where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. The novel's best feature is the characters. Each member of the small writing circle is exquisitely drawn, with small virtues and larger foibles. As with Christie at her best, Lovesey presents each as both a likely and an unlikely suspect.
The main character is Bob Naylor, who joins the circle only after Blacker's death. This does not keep him from being a suspect as well. Naylor, who drives a delivery truck and writes comic verse, is a no-nonsense type who stands out from the neuroses of his fellow scribblers. Lovesey pokes gentle fun at their ambitions and egos by having the seemingly dimmest member become the only success.
While Naylor and Thomasine O’Loughlin, who writes erotic poetry, team up as amateur sleuths, the real detective is Inspector Henrietta Mallin, making her debut as a protagonist. Hen appears in Lovesey's previous novel, The House Sitter (2003), in support of detective Peter Diamond, glimpsed briefly here. At first, her powerful personality is a bit of a jolt in contrast to the writing circle, but she soon settles down to conduct a compelling investigation. Hen, who listens to Christie mysteries on tape, is a welcome addition to Lovesey's universe of crime.