Peter Lovesey was writing historical crime fiction long before such writers as Edward Marston, Ellis Peters, and Anne Perry came on the scene. Lovesey started writing as an outlet for his knowledge of sporting history, much of which related to Victorian England. His expertise in this period explains the author’s decision to set many of his novels in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In fact, one of his most popular characters is the sovereign’s son Edward, the Prince of Wales—more affectionately known as ‘Bertie’. Lovesey’s other Victorian sleuth is Detective Sergeant Cribb, who debuted in Lovesey’s first mystery novel, Wobble to Death. More recently the author has added a contemporary detective to his series-characters, and now alternates his Bertie books with those featuring Peter Diamond, a policeman in Bath’s present-day police force.
Peter Lovesey was born in Middlesex, England, in 1936. “The same year as Robert Barnard and Reginald Hill,” he says, adding with a smile, “A vintage year for mystery writers”. Brought up in suburban London during World War II, he was evacuated to the West country in 1944 after the family home was destroyed by a ‘flying bomb’. These war experiences, and those following in early peace time, were to influence two of Lovesey’s later novels, Rough Cider and On the Edge.
After completing his education at Hampton Grammar School, Lovesey went to Reading University in 1955. Failing his Latin exams meant that he was not eligible to study English because a qualification in the ancient language was a necessary requirement for the modern one. Being a reasonable artist, he decided to study Fine Art instead. Part of the latter course included History and English as secondary subjects and due to submitting “some quite interesting essays,” as the author puts it, two of Lovesey’s tutors, novelist John Wain and literary critic Frank Kermode, helped him get into English studies after all.
By now he had met Jacqueline (Jax) Lewis, his future wife, and he was eager to change courses for more reasons than one. “The big incentive,” he recalls, “was that Art was a four-year course and English three. I wanted to get married to Jax who was doing a three-year course, so I swapped to English.”
Lovesey, who recalls his time at Reading with much affection, says that, “Whilst I didn’t do anything remarkable, I managed to get a degree.” The statement is a good example of the author’s modesty, because his entry in The St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers shows that he graduated with Honours.
When Lovesey left university in 1958, a two-year stint in the National Service was still obligatory in Britain, and he joined the Royal Air Force. With an eye on the future, he signed up for three years and completed a training course to become an Education Officer. The rank offered better wages, allowing him to marry Jax in 1959, and also gave him a head-start on a teaching career.
In 1961 he left the Armed Forces for a fourteen-year career in education. Starting out as a Lecturer in English at Thurrock Technical College in Essex, he became Head of the General Education Department at London’s Hammersmith College for Further Education (now West London College) until he left to become a full-time writer. Lovesey enjoyed teaching and interacting with students, but disliked the inroads made on both of these areas by his administrative duties. “There’s so much paperwork, so many committee meetings, to the extent that it distracts from the real business of teaching,” he says.
By the time Lovesey ended his educational career in 1975, he had already established himself as an author, with two non-fiction books on sport, and six of the eight Detective Sergeant Cribb books.
The Cribb novels came about through the author’s self-confessed lack in athletic ability. “The first two books I wrote were about sport and their origin goes right back to my school days,” Lovesey remembers. “If you wanted to have any status with people in the school, you had to excel at sport. I was useless,” he says, laughing, “I was really, really bad.” In an attempt to improve his standing, he may have been one of the world’s first joggers. He recalls shuffling around the back streets of the London suburb of Twickenham, trying to improve his times, but claims to have frequently run into lampposts and being savaged by dogs. As a consequence, he sought a safer alternative to gamesmanship. “I became one of those kids who didn’t participate, but who knew and could talk about sport a great deal.” He would read all the papers and listen to all the commentaries on boxing, football, and so on. Gradually he began to dream about a career as a sports journalist. Later, when he was a teacher, he started to submit articles to magazines, initially without much success. It took a little while before he realised there was a little covered topic he could exploit: track and field history. Explains Lovesey, “I thought that, if I dug into the past, I could find information for interesting character-pieces about great runners.” The research brought him into contact with many names in the world of athletics, some of whom became good friends. People like Norris McWhirter, the founder of The Guinness Book of Records, and Harold Abrahams, one of the athletes portrayed by Ben Cross in the Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire [UK / US].
After Lovesey had spent some ten years writing about sport, it was suggested that he might have enough material for a book. “I thought about it and realised it would require more work,” he says. “So, I began to expand some of the articles I had written and put them together into a book called The Kings of Distance.” Peter Lovesey’s first book, focusing on the lives of five long distance runners, was published in 1968. It started off in the early nineteenth century with the story of Deerfoot, an American Indian, and closed some hundred years later with Emil Zatopek, the Czech athlete who dominated the Olympic Games in 1952. The book received good reviews and was chosen as Sports Book of the Year.
In 1969 The Kings of Distance was followed by The Guide to British Track and Field Literature 1275-1968, a bibliography on sports writing, written in collaboration with Tom McNab. A definitive reference work on the subject, the guide is still used by collectors.
It was also in 1969 that Jax Lovesey spotted an advert in The Times which would have a major impact on her husband’s life. It was for a competition to write a crime novel and, because the cash prize was about as much as her husband was earning in a year as a teacher, Jax suggested he should enter. After all, he had had two books published already. Lovesey was less confident. “I pointed out that those had been non-fiction books about sport, and I had hardly read any crime fiction.” Jax was persistent, however, and he finally agreed to have a go.
For this budding novelist, the obvious idea was to use a background in athletics. He entered his manuscript, called Wobble to Death and, looking back, he is convinced that it was the novelty value of the story that won him the first prize.
Lovesey first came across wobbles—Victorian long-distance races lasting six days—when he was researching an article in the newspaper library in Colindale. “They seemed very bizarre and extraordinary, involving all kinds of tricks that trainers and runners would use to try to hamper their opponents,” he recalls. “They would put laxatives in the refreshments, crush walnut shells into competitors’ shoes…” However, it was a performance-enhancing drug that fired Lovesey’s imagination. To improve their results, runners would take tiny amounts of strychnine. “It is a stimulant if used in a tiny amount, but take a little more and you’re writhing in agony!” notes Lovesey. He immediately realised that the ‘wobble’ setting was a natural for a traditional whodunit: poison, murder, and suspects in a closed environment. All that remained was to find a detective to solve the crime. The author decided an ordinary policeman would be more interesting than a Sherlock Holmes-type character, and learned about police methods of the day. Enter Sergeant Cribb and his assistant, Constable Thackeray.
It wasn’t until Lord Hardinge, the publisher of Wobble to Death, handed Peter Lovesey his cheque and asked him what he would be writing next, that the first-time novelist thought about a sequel. “I remember thinking that I could probably write another crime novel,” he says, “but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what it would be about. I didn’t think I could go on mining the Victorian world of athletics for very long.”
For the sequel, Lovesey stuck with the same detectives, and again turned to Victorian newspapers for inspiration. In the 1880s clandestine fist fights took place in the south of England. To get to the secret location, trains would be organised and people would end up in the middle of nowhere having to walk a short distance to the place where the fight would be held. This background was used in the author’s second novel, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers.
The books developed into a series, mostly exploring various forms of Victorian entertainment. Abracadaver dealt with music-hall acts, and Mad Hatter’s Holiday is set in Brighton, a popular seaside holiday resort. The fifth in the Cribb series, Invitation to a Dynamite Party, focused on Britain’s early problems with Irish nationalists. “In that book I used real events more than I had in any other up to that time,” says Lovesey. “I found out about Irishmen who, for many of the same reasons as the Irish Republican Army, were blowing up buildings in London in the early 1880’s. Terrifying everybody, they were much more successful than the IRA, and actually damaged London Bridge and several of London’s main railway stations. They even managed to get a bomb into Scotland Yard and blew up part of the building!” Invitation to a Dynamite Party ended with an attempt to kill the Prince of Wales by means of one of the earliest submarines, a vessel built by the Irish.
Swing, Swing Together was inspired by the craze set off by Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The latter is a humorous tale of three friends boating up the river Thames. Jerome’s book was a huge best-seller in its time, and as a result trips on the Thames became enormously popular. Reading of all this activity started Lovesey thinking, ‘Let’s have a situation where people join in the craze…. In Three Men in a Boat a corpse floats past the boat… Let’s weave a story around that.’
Also popular in Victorian times were spiritualists who ‘contacted’ the dead, and this subject was the inspiration for A Case of Spirits.
The last Cribb novel, Waxwork, provided a major boost to Lovesey’s writing career. Telling a gripping tale of a Victorian woman awaiting execution for murder, Waxwork was well received, won the author his first Crime Writers’ Association Dagger, and caught the eye of June Wyndham-Davies, an English television producer who thought the subject might make an interesting television film. The dramatization of Waxwork was broadcast in 1979, and starred Alan Dobie as Sergeant Cribb, and William Simons as Constable Thackeray. It proved so popular that Granada, the production company, decided to turn the other seven Cribb novels into a television series. Peter Lovesey was shown the scripts, and when he mentioned that one of them didn’t feel quite right, the producers asked him if he would do the adaptation himself. The experience proved useful when Granada approached him with the request for a second series. Did he have any ideas for further stories? “You don’t turn down an offer like that,” says Lovesey. “I came home triumphantly and told Jax about it. She asked me when the company wanted the stories, reminding me that writing a book took me about a year. They wanted six plots in eight months!”
The opportunity and financial rewards were too good to pass up, and it was Jax who provided a solution to the problematic time factor. Lovesey explains, “Jax always had some influence on the books. We used to discuss the structure of the story, and I would read the chapters to her as I was going along. So, to help me out with the television series, she said she would write three of the stories, if I would write the other three. That’s how we did it,” he says, concluding, “We had our names jointly on the credits.”
The television series, shown in some fifty countries, was highly successful, and also helped to further popularise the novels. Yet Lovesey decided against writing more Cribb books. One reason was the definitive portrayal of the detective. “I don’t in any way want to give the impression that I wasn’t satisfied with Alan Dobie’s performance of Cribb,” he stresses. “I thought he was brilliant in the part, but television is a very powerful medium. After I saw him play my character it was very difficult to get his portrayal out of my mind. The result was that I couldn’t get back to the original concept that I had for Cribb.” Moreover, he had exhausted all his ideas for further stories when writing the television series.
Before concluding the Cribb novels, Lovesey wrote three books of contemporary fiction under the pseudonym of Peter Lear. The first, Goldengirl, focused on a super female athlete. Everyone from the girl’s own father to big business men seek to exploit her, even when the distinct possibility arises that she will break down from all the pressure.
Goldengirl was filmed starring Susan Anton and James Coburn, and problems hampered the film’s release. “In the book the athlete was an American competing in the Moscow Olympics,” says the author. “It was written about two or three years before the actual event was scheduled to take place. By the time the film was ready for distribution the Russian invasion of Afghanistan led the Americans to boycott the 1980 Olympics. That made it difficult for the studio to promote the film, and it did not do well at the box-office.”
Two more novels appeared under the Lear pseudonym. Spider Girl is about a woman trying to overcome her fear of spiders. So much so that she becomes obsessed, turning almost spider-like herself.
The Secret of Spandau is a fictitious account of an attempt to spring Rudolf Hess from his cell in Berlin’s Spandau Prison. There has always been speculation as to the motives of Hitler’s deputy parachuting into Scotland in 1941. After the war Hess was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in Spandau. More recently questions have been asked about the identity of the now deceased prisoner, with some people suggesting that the jailed man may not really have been Hess. Lovesey’s theory is that the German prisoner-of-war knew too much sensitive information about the people who wanted make peace with the Germany. “For me,” says Lovesey, “the most intriguing thing was not Hess’ ‘true’ identity, but the question of his sanity. It is a fact that there were attempts to brainwash Hess in his first few months in Britain. When obliterating his memory proved unsuccessful, he was imprisoned. The Russians were always blamed for keeping Hess in Spandau but,” concludes Lovesey, “I think the British had far more interest in keeping him there.”
In 1982, The False Inspector Dew was published, winning Peter Lovesey a Gold Dagger. The introduction to the novel suggests it is based on true events, and then teasingly leaves the reader to try and define which facts are real and which fiction. Lovesey had been reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and was much influenced by the latter novel. “Doctorow had used real people in his book and I found that very exciting,” he says. “I began to think I might do something similar in a detective novel.”
Lovesey’s plot was inspired by Doctor Crippen, the English doctor who murdered his wife, burying her in their cellar. Crippen then attempted to escape to Canada with his mistress on an ocean liner. Unfortunately for the murderer, he was recognised by the Captain, who cabled that Crippen was on board. It was Inspector Dew who was sent ahead in a faster vessel to waylay Crippen in Canada and bring him back to face trial.
Lovesey read Inspector Dew’s memoirs and became more and more intrigued by the policeman’s reaction to the murderer. “Dew seemed to like Crippen, even though his name is now almost synonymous with someone like Jack the Ripper,” says Lovesey. “In his autobiography the Inspector called Crippen ‘the little fellow’ and ‘my friend Crippen’, portraying him as a Chaplinesque character. That, to some extent, is why Charlie Chaplin makes a brief appearance in my book.” A further area of interest for Lovesey was to see how much Dew identified with Crippen, wondering what motivated the murderer, and suggesting ways in which Crippen might have escaped. In the book Crippen becomes Walter Baranov, and the reader is left guessing to the closing pages whether the very likeable villain manages to elude the police. The clever plot-twists, and surprising-ending, earned the author his second dagger.
For his next novel, Lovesey stuck to the winning formula of mixing fact and fiction, setting Keystone in 1915 at Hollywood legend Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Studios. The plot has an aspiring English actor joining the Keystone Cops to solve a succession of crimes involving bribery, kidnap, and murder. Naturally the slapstick comedy of the silent-film era forms an integral part of the book.
Up until Keystone, the author had not yet written a novel set in a period of time of which he had some personal experience. All this would change with his following two non-series books.
In Rough Cider the Second World War forces a young city boy out of his everyday environment. He is evacuated to a ‘safe’, but alien location in the countryside, only to become a crucial witness in a murder case. Though Lovesey’s evacuee experiences in Cornwall did not include murder, he still remembers them as unsettling due to the unfamiliar surroundings and strange local accent. Years later, after coming across a West-country recipe for mutton-fed cider, which involves a joint of meat added to barrelled cider for extra potency, an idea for a novel sprang to mind, and Rough Cider was born.
On the Edge is about “two women who become bored after the war and decide to murder their husbands,” says Lovesey. The novel looks at the dissatisfaction of people who in peacetime were forced back into their old, often less exciting existence. For Rose and Antonia, the two women in On the Edge, the situation causes personal conflicts, leading them to kill their husbands. “As with Walter Baranov in The False Inspector Dew I can identify quite a bit with Rose,” says the author, describing her mitigating circumstances. “Books that just paint the murderer as a complete blackguard aren’t really that interesting. I try to get away from black and white characterisations in an attempt to understand a little of the motives of people. I think it’s always fascinating for a reader to be able to understand what drives a person to murder. It’s one of those universal questions you can only answer if you have been confronted by it yourself.”
Jax Lovesey was especially helpful with On the Edge. “Since it was a book about two women,” says Lovesey, “I checked with Jax quite a bit. I had an idea of how women talked, but it was the way women talk to men, not how they talked amongst themselves. So Jax put me right on quite a bit of that.”
Having set three subsequent books in the twentieth century, Peter Lovesey decided to return to Victorian times for his next novel. The author explains, “I read about Fred Archer, the top jockey of his day, who at the age of twenty-nine committed suicide. His sister came in as he was holding a gun to his head and she heard him say ‘Are they coming?’ before he shot himself. I thought the incident would lend itself to a conspiracy theory: who were ‘they’, and what was it all about? It never became clear at the inquest or in the biographies of Archer.” In his search for information on the jockey, Lovesey found that Fred Archer, also known as the Tinman, frequently rode for the Prince of Wales—the latter being called Bertie by his family and close friends.
“I thought ‘why shouldn’t Bertie himself take an interest in the case?’ I discovered that he had sent the biggest wreath at the funeral, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that he was perfect to be the detective. As the Prince of Wales, he had lots of time on his hands—his mother, Queen Victoria, gave him no responsibilities—so he spent his time playing cards, charming the ladies, and looking for things to do. Also, he was in a unique position: he could order the police to help him if he wanted or, when necessary, he could keep them at arm’s length.”
Having found his sleuth, the author went on to consider what form the book might take. During research for The Secret of Spandau, he learned that a substantial number of documents regarding Rudolf Hess had been classified as ‘secret’, and their release controlled by a time embargo. What if something similar had occurred to Edward VII’s personal papers? ‘Declassification’ is how Lovesey would explain the sudden appearance of Bertie and the Tinman.
The author recalls enjoying writing the novel in the first person, allowing his sleuth to solve the Tinman mystery, almost in spite of his bungling attempts.
When Bertie and the Tinman was published one of the favourable reviews referred to the book as ‘Dick Francis by gaslight’. With the year of Dame Agatha Christie’s centenary nearing, Lovesey wondered whether it might not be interesting for him to write the next Bertie novel with a nod to the Queen of Crime Fiction. Taking some of the typical ingredients from a Christie plot—a country house setting, a murder occurring for every day of the week, and rhymes being sent as clues—Bertie and the Seven Bodies was written.
A third book, Bertie and the Crime of Passion, took the Prince to Paris where he investigates a murder with the assistance of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt.
In 1991, over twenty years since Wobble to Death, after fourteen historical mysteries and numerous short stories, Peter Lovesey decided the time had come to write a contemporary crime novel. Ironically the title of the first book in this (unplanned) series featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond was The Last Detective.
When writing his first ‘modern’ crime novel, Lovesey had to consider how he would deal with unfamiliar subjects such as up-to-date police procedures and current forensic methods. Previously these matters had been relatively easy to write about because they were less complicated and fixed in time. A solution was soon found. “The procedures and forensics are acknowledged but,” says Lovesey, “I’ve deliberately made my detective a dinosaur as far as those issues are concerned.”
Having explained Diamond’s contempt for the latest methods, the author also made the detective a loner, “Which, for me,” he says, “was more important. A police procedural should involve a great number of people, it’s team work. It can be very difficult to engage a reader’s interest when the credit for solving a crime is diffused through a number of people, and I prefer to write the kind of story where one person gets the credit and faces the problems himself.”
The Last Detective won the 1991 Anthony Award for best novel. It also left Peter Lovesey with an unforeseen dilemma: “Diamond has this great row towards the end of the book and storms out of the police force,” says Lovesey, adding, “Initially I had him continue with the case after being reprimanded. Then I realised that this character had such integrity, and that he was so volatile, that he would not stay in the force but would resign. So that’s what happened. However, that left me with a problem when I started thinking about a sequel.”
The dilemma was solved by turning the next Peter Diamond novel, Diamond Solitaire, into an international thriller. “Peter Diamond has a job as a security guard in Harrods”, explains Lovesey, “but is fired when a Japanese girl sets off the alarms in his department. Intrigued by the little girl Diamond becomes involved with her lot when she is kidnapped, taking him first to New York and ultimately to Tokyo where the whole case is resolved.”
In The Summons the author found an ingenious way to return Peter Diamond to the police force: one of the former-Detective Superintendent’s old cases is drastically reopened, forcing the police to ask for his help. By the close of the novel Diamond can return to his old job stating his own terms. The Summons was nominated for an Edgar and won the CWA Silver Dagger for 1995.
Diamond’s next case, Bloodhounds, was published in the year following a brief controversy in the Crime Writers’ Association regarding the value of traditional versus hard-boiled crime fiction. Bloodhounds focuses on a group of crime fiction readers who gather once a week to discuss the merits of their preferred genre. When members of the reading group start being murdered, Diamond is called in to solve a variety of crimes. With the fictional skirmish following on so soon after the less drastic CWA discord, it might seem that Lovesey had found inspiration right on his doorstep. “Well,” he says with a smile, “it might be unwise to admit it, but there are real people in Bloodhounds.” He then swiftly points out why it would be pointless trying to identify any of his fellow writers, “My characters are often based on real people. I start by thinking so-and-so is ideal for that particular character. Visualising my protagonists makes them more real for me. Then, as the story develops, they take on a life of their own and become involved with things their real-life counterparts would never consider doing. Therefore, it would be unfair for me to say that a character is based on a certain individual because they have completely changed.”
In 1996, for the second year running, the Silver Dagger was awarded to a Diamond novel.
As mentioned earlier, Peter Lovesey has also written many short stories, and they too have won numerous awards. Interested readers can find some of them in Butchers and the Other Stories of Crime and The Crime of Miss Oyster Brown and Other Stories. Calling the short story form “a delight,” Lovesey says, “If I could make a living writing them, I would be very happy to do so. They can be done in a short time and you can experiment with original, exciting ideas. You can take risks with short stories that you can’t with a novel.” The ideas for the tales bubble up in Lovesey’s mind when he is deeply involved in a novel, and he thinks of writing them as a reward to himself for finishing a book.
When writing a novel, he will have worked out a synopsis beforehand. This can run up to eight or nine pages, describing what will happen from chapter to chapter. “It may alter a little as I go along,” he says, “but I have to be satisfied in my own mind that the structure is there before I begin.” It takes Lovesey eight or nine months to complete a manuscript and, whilst some of the research is done before he starts, much is also done during the writing of the book itself.
Comparing notes with other authors on their writing methods Lovesey was amazed to realise that he is one of a small group of writers who know how their novels will end before they start writing them. “In my experience,” he says, “the majority of crime writers appear to prefer not be too clear about where the book is going. They say they can’t see the pleasure in writing if they know what’s happening. For me the pleasure comes from putting down the words, and finding the appropriate ways of saying things.”
The author calls himself a very slow writer, writing approximately two hundred words a day at the start of a novel, but steadily increasing to six or eight hundred words towards the book’s completion. One thing Lovesey rarely does is revision, remarking, “What I write is what will go in the book.”
Peter Lovesey is unsure what his next project will be. He has recently completed the fifth Peter Diamond novel, Upon a Dark Night, and expects to return to Bertie soon. Looking back to his very first detective, Lovesey can draw certain parallels with his more recent contemporary creation. “I suppose we have all been in jobs where we’ve had some contempt for our superiors, thinking we could do the job a whole lot better without them interfering! That certainly is true of Diamond and Cribb. Also, to some extent they’re both protective about the information that they have gathered, not wanting to share it too much. That trait of being careful of revealing too much is also a convention of mystery writers: you want to surprise the reader, so perhaps you keep back a little.” He concludes with what could be a summary of his literary style, “I try and write a fair book, a ‘mystery’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word.”
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1997.