(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Unusual among mystery writers, Peter Lovesey started his career in the genre not because he loved reading mysteries but because he loved sports, long-distance running in particular. His prizewinning debut, Wobble to Death, is set in the Agricultural Hall in Islington in 1879, at one of the running events known as wobbles, in which contestants try to run the greatest possible distance in six days. The hardships of the runners, the filth and stench pervading the building rented for the event, the tricks that athletes and trainers used to gain an extra winning edge, and the varied and sometimes mysterious reasons that a sport becomes so obsessively important to its contestants are all evoked in vivid detail. The reader learns about this nineteenth century sporting event along with Sergeant Cribb and his assistant Thackeray, who are called to the scene when one of the runners favored to win is murdered.

This winning combination of the historical setting, the sociology and psychology of sports, and a modern police procedural story led to a series of Cribb adventures highlighting other aspects of Victorian life: bare-knuckle prizefighting in The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (1971), hammer throwing and the music-hall stage in Abracadaver (1972), seaside resorts in Mad Hatter’s Holiday: A Novel of Murder in Victorian Brighton (1973), and Irish terrorism in Invitation to a Dynamite Party (1974). A Case of Spirits (1975) explores the dynamics of Victorian family life, the emancipated new woman, and the craze for spiritual phenomena.

Lovesey’s other novels branch out from the Cribb series; they may be set in a different historical period, such as the Hollywood of Mack Sennett in Keystone (1983) or a transatlantic ocean liner in the 1920’s in The False Inspector Dew (1982). Rough Cider (1987), set in the 1960’s, describes the consequences of an incident during World War II. In Bertie and the Tinman (1988), however, Lovesey returns to the Victorian sporting scene.

Mystery novels set in the past, whether in Victorian times as in the works of Lovesey, Julian Symons, or Nicholas Meyer, or centuries ago as in the works of Ellis Peters or Robert van Gulik, automatically have a charm of their own. As a genre, mystery fiction has traditionally been considered a form of escapist literature, and historical mysteries provide an escape even further removed from the realities of modern life. The Victorian setting of Lovesey’s Cribb series, for example, evokes not only the stereotypes of a slower, more leisurely era but also the tradition of those mystery-fiction giants, Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The unequal intellectual contest between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous duo is re-created in Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb and Edward Thackeray; the latter wishes, as he plods through the tedious tasks assigned him, to surprise his superior just once with some vital discovery, but like Watson, he cannot.

Lovesey has explained that Victorian society was a rich source of motivations for crime; the twentieth century with its “social welfare and easier divorce and psychiatric care has removed many of the bad old reasons for murder.” By contrast, the Victorian need for respectability provides more motives for murder: “The need to achieve security by inheritance, or life insurance, or marriage; the risk of losing it when scandal threatened; the equating of sex with sin; the stigma of insanity; the things that went unsaid.”

A historical setting, Lovesey notes, must conform to a framework of historical fact, which cannot be changed and which thus assures a measure of certainty and control. In Invitation to a Dynamite Party, for example, which the author describes as a Victorian James Bond book, the reader knows that the plot to assassinate the Prince of Wales cannot succeed. Although some elements of plot are thus deprived of suspense, there is still the whimsical pleasure of recognizing real historical characters or events juxtaposed to the fictional : Sergeant Cribb will occasionally mention Charlie Peace, an infamous Victorian murderer, or the equally infamous Jack the Ripper; the pioneers of Hollywood—Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, and Fatty Arbuckle—appear in Keystone; and The False Inspector Dew features a brief description of the sinking of the Lusitania. In Bertie and the Tinman, the Prince of Wales is the detective figure, with cameo appearances from his mother, Queen Victoria.

As interesting as their backgrounds are, Lovesey’s novels do not appeal merely because of their historical detail; rather, they illustrate his own view of such historical novels: “All we ask of the historical mystery is that it tell a story consistent with known facts and that those facts arise naturally from the plot. If we want a history lecture, we can go to college.” Because of their historical setting and their range of tone, it would be misleading to characterize the Sergeant Cribb novels as typical police procedurals. Some elements, however, as...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)