Sunday, April 1, 2012

Victorian Tableaux Vivants #2: Waxwork (1978), by Peter Lovesey

Long before the "period mystery" had become a common feature of the genre, distinguished English crime writer Peter Lovesey gave us the Sergeant Cribb series of Victorian detective novels.  Lovesey published eight of these tales between 1970 and 1978.  Not only were they well-received by critics and lay readers alike, they inspired a popular British television detective series, Cribb.  Waxwork, the eighth and last of these books, ended the series on a high note in 1978.  Since then Peter Lovesey has given us the short-lived but much-loved (certainly by this reader) Bertie, Prince of Wales series and the current, long-running, award-winning Peter Diamond series, as well as such praised standalones as The False Inspector Dew, Rough Cider, On the Edge and The Reaper.

Florence Maybrick
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).

hardcover American edition of
Waxwork (1978)
Both novels are still in print today, Waxwork in an attractive edition from Soho Press.  Since its publication in 1978 Waxwork has been considered one of the best of the Lovesey Sergeant Cribb titles.

Generally, I think, the Cribb mysteries are seen as lighter in tone: charming rather than dark and somber like Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings. Yet Waxwork strikes me as rather dark and somber too. Ruth Rendell praised the novel for its  depiction of what feels like "an account of a real-life crime." "Nothing strikes a false note," she declared. "Nothing seems contrived."  The late novelist Sarah Gainham asserted that in Waxwork a "feeling of authentic horror is produced."  I 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)
As Marian's day of execution nears, new evidence arises leading the police to question whether Marian actually had means of access to the locked poison cabinet from which the cyanide was obtained.  Cribb is put on the case to discover how Marian Cromer got to the keys.  But Cribb comes to suspect that Marian Cromer simply could not have gotten to the keys, and that someone else committed the crime....

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.

Newgate cell
There also is, I should add, a subplot concerning the Newgate hangman and Tussaud's Wax Museum (hence the title), which adds its own macabre note.

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.

I retain 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.

Peter Lovesey


  1. The only Cribb I've read thus far is MAD HATTER'S HOLIDAY. I probably had the misfortune of starting with the weakest one, because I did not like it very much at all, despite some great cleverness in the puzzle! (It was ruined by heavy-handed clueing and a disturbing main character.)

    BUT... I really like Lovesey overall. And now you've made me feel guilty about not having read his stuff in a while. It's sitting on my shelf, staring at me. More precisely, this book as well as two "Bertie" novels are doing the staring. WOBBLE TO DEATH and ABRACADAVER are there, too...

    Choices, choices, choices!!!

  2. Patrick, I recommend to you this one, Wobble to Death, A Case of Spirits and Swing, Swing Together as the top half, probably, for you.

    I love the Bertie mysteries, Bertie is a hoot. I may blog them soon, since you got me talking about them! I do wish Peter would do another one.

  3. Great choice Curt and WAXWORKS may be the best of a generally strong series. One could argue I think that it was Lovesey's success that really kickstarted the interest in historical detective fiction in the 70s. Incidentally, it may be worth pointing out that Lovesey was intimately involved with the above-average TV series and wrote several original scripts for it in collaboration with his wife. Peter Lovesey, like Bill Pronzini, is one of the last true links to the Golden Age, having started publishing whodunits in the classical manner when the likes of Christie, Queen, Stout and Carr were in fact still active. To my mind he has never written a bad book - some are of course weaker than others (of the Diamond series the only one I have not wanted to re-read was 'Diamond Solitaire', which unusually is more of a thriller than a whodunit).

  4. I thought I had read all the Cribb books, but your description of this one does not ring a bell. It may simply be that it's been a long time (probably 30+ years). I loved them all -- possibly Wobble to Death perhaps the most. I've also read Rough Cider and False Inspector Dew as well as the Bertie books.

    I probably should read the Diamond series. I can't say why I haven't, though it may be simply that I like evocations of other eras, whether it comes in a modern book set in another time or a book written at least fifty years ago.

  5. I'm so glad you mentioned the Cribb series. I've not read enough of them and definitely not this one. But I do like Lovesey's style in this series. Thanks for putting this back on my radar.

  6. Do you say? Yes, Waxwork is undoubtedly beautiful, even gothic. But, in the series of Cribb, is just as nice, "Bloodhounds." I loved it. In Italy they are published many Lovesey, almost all (missing some titles of the first series of Cribb). The latest, "The Headhunters", was published in November 2011.

  7. Thanks everyone for the comments. Over his forty-two year writing career, Peter Lovesey has been consistently good, I think. I like the Diamonds too, including Lovesey's Carr homage, Bloodhounds. I need to read more of them. He has a new one coming out in the States in June (April in UK), called Cop to Corpse. It's another variation on the serial killer theme, as I understand. Sounds a bit like Philip Macdonald's X v. Rex.

    1. Another very nice variation on the serial killer theme was "The Running of Beasts", excellent novel by Bill Pronzini & Barry N. Malzberg (re-published two months ago in Italy).
      Two very beautiful articles, Curtis. Congratulations!

  8. When I saw the plot summary of Lovesey's upcoming book, I thought to myself: "Constable, Guard Thyself!" :)

  9. I loved the Cribb books when they were published in the 70s & remember sitting up very late at night to watch the TV series (no VCRs back then let alone DVDs). I had quite a crush on Alan Dobie. I have the series on DVD now but haven't gotten around to watching it. I may have to watch it now although I've just had a look at the boxset & Waxwork doesn't seem to have been adapted.

  10. Lyn,

    apparently it was adapted but is not included in the set for some reason.

  11. no 'waxworks should be released properly by then 'CRIBB' suffered so many cuts in it's move from video to dvd shameful
    THE WONDERFUL ALAN DOBIE IS 84 IN JUNE who let's face it gave life to st cribb