accused Victorian poisoner
In a case of coincidence, Lovesey and Julian Symons in 1978 both published notable Victorian mysteries that center around lovely, enigmatic blondes suspected of poisoning murders: respectively Waxwork and The Blackheath Poisonings (see my recent review of The Blackheath Poisonings).
|first American edition of Waxwork (1978)|
Generally, I think, the Cribb mysteries are viewed as fairly light in tone: charming rather than dark and sombre like Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings. Yet Waxwork strikes me as rather dark and sombre too! Ruth Rendell praised the novel for its convincing depiction of what feels like "an account of a real-life crime." "Nothing strikes a false note," she declared. "Nothing seems contrived." For her part, the late novelist Sarah Gainham asserted that in Waxwork a "feeling of authentic horror is produced."
I fully agree with both assessments. Waxwork is a gripping, fascinating tale.
In short order in Waxwork the beautiful Marian Cromer (see above left) is arrested and confesses to the crime of poisoning (with potassium cyanide) the assistant of the fashionable society photographer to whom she is married. Her victim, she explains, had been blackmailing her, on account of his knowledge of certain risque photos she had allowed to be taken of herself several years earlier. Since the crime was coldly premeditated, Marian has been sentenced to death by hanging.
|Soho edition (2010)|
Despite the small circle of suspects in his novel, Peter Lovesey manages to present a quite interesting crime problem. He also builds up a considerable level of suspense (of course the "death row convict" plot is not original to Lovesey, going back at least to Philip Macdonald's The Noose, 1930; but Lovesey does an exemplary job all round with it).
As with The Blackheath Poisonings, I would like to say more about a number of the novel's interesting aspects, but I am constrained by the reviewer's sacred obligation to avoid the offense of spoiling. Hence I will confine myself to a few comments about Lovesey's handling of the matter of class in the Victorian age.
Class is omnipresent in Waxwork, whether in Cribb's relations with his own smug superiors or Marian Cromer's relations with her jailers (Cromer's jail scenes are grim; Lovesey shows how Newgate prison was one place where members of the lower class could turn the tables on their "betters"). In other books I have read in this series, the class satire was amusing; yet here it more feels depressing. Eight years into the series Cribb still has not attained a promotion from sergeant to inspector; one begins to despair with Cribb of this ever actually happening.
Is Waxwork the best of Lovesey's Cribb tales? It may well be. It certainly feels the closest in spirit to The Blackheath Poisonings, with its uncozy atmosphere of grim anxiety.
For myself, I admit retaining a great affection for my first Cribb (and first Lovesey), the brilliantly titled Wobble to Death, with its fantastically original setting of a "wobble" (read the book to find out what that is!). But all the Cribbs make eminently good reading and all, fortunately, are back in print, courtesy of Soho Press. Don't miss them.