Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Dew Over: The False Inspector Dew (1982), by Peter Lovesey

Tomorrow is the birthday of Peter Lovesey, whose distinguished career in mystery writing now stretches back nearly forty-five years, to 1970, when he published the wonderfully-titled--and simply wonderful--Wobble to Death, the first of his eight Sergeant Cribb Victorian mysteries, a series that ran until 1978 (the last novel in the series, Waxwork, is reviewed here).

Since 1991, Lovesey's crime fiction output has been dominated by his much-praised present-day Peter Diamond series (the fourteenth novel in the series is about to be published in the US), but in between these two series Lovesey shook things up quite a bit.

Between 1982 to 1990 he published under his own name six crime novels: The False Inspector Dew (1982), Keystone (1983), Rough Cider (1986), Bertie and the Tinman (1987), On the Edge (1989) and Bertie and the Seven Bodies (1990). Of these books only the two Bertie--i.e., Albert Edward, Prince of Wales--mysteries were part of a series (a third, Bertie and the Crime of Passion, would follow in 1993).

The False Inspector Dew, Keystone, Rough Cider and On the Edge are standalones but all reflect Lovesey's interest in history and period settings in his mysteries.  I intend to look at each of these interesting novels over the rest of the year, beginning with Lovesey's hugely praised The False Inspector Dew, which won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association.

The False Inspector Dew somewhat reminds me of HRF Keating's The Murder of the Maharaja (1980), which won the CWA Gold Dagger two years earlier, in that it too is a witty, virtuoso take on the classical mystery.  After a very short opening section, which includes a dramatic episode on the torpedoed Lusitania (today this part inevitably would be called a prologue by the original publisher), Lovesey takes us to 1921 and introduces the various characters who will find themselves enmeshed in drama on the high seas, when they fatefully go aboard the SS Mauretania.

Our central figures are Walter Baranov, a henpecked English dentist ("Baranov" is a family stage name; Walter once worked the halls as a mentalist), and Alma Webster, a naive fan of the romance fiction of the much-ridiculed but much-read Ethel M. Dell.

Walter's wife, Lydia, is a faded stage actress of, to put it charitably, quite mercurial temperament, who has decided, based on the slenderest of hopes, that she can revive her moribund career in the American film business. Lydia controls the purse strings in the marriage, owning, along with the couple's house, Walter's dental practice, and she has announced that Walter must abandon his new vocation to become her agent in Hollywood. Walter refuses, so Lydia angrily declares she will go without him, selling his practice anyway (she says she needs the money for her American career promotion).

Walter, who has become romantically attached to Alma, one of his patients, begins planning with the lovestruck woman some way to get rid of Lydia--for good. Eventually they decide they will murder her on board Mauretania. Alma will be a stowaway on the ship, taking Lydia's place after Lydia is extinguished and dropped out a porthole, while Walter will take passage under a false name, "Walter Dew"--after the police inspector who famously apprehended the wife murderer Dr. Crippen aboard SS Montrose in 1910 (Walter is fascinated with the case).

This sounds like classic suspense, and, indeed, the tale is plenty suspenseful. You likely will feel compelled to finish the book in one or two sittings.

Yet embedded in the text is a legitimate "fair play" mystery, for Walter Baranov, the false Inspector Dew, ends up investigating murder on the Mauretania (I won't say more, except that I found intriguing the development of Walter's character over the course of novel).

If you read carefully you definitely should hit upon part of the solution after about 200 pages or so, I think, but another aspect of the puzzle is harder to discern ahead of the author's grand revelation. A few readers have complained that this part of the novel is not "fair play," but I beg to differ. I was partially mystified too originally, but legitimately so.

The False Inspector Dew is a wonderful, witty, tricksy mystery novel (right down to the last line), a true high point in post-WW2 crime fiction for lovers of the classic form.  This is one fictional voyage you do not want to miss.

Note: I should mention that Peter Lovesey contributed the coda essay, on the Detection Club, in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (McFarland 2014), which I edited.  His substantial piece is a lovely homage to the Detection Club and to that great historian of the mystery genre, Doug Greene.


  1. I have read and reread this one a few times now, Curt - it helps to have a memory that refuses to retain the details between readings - and I agree with you completely - it's first-rate. I find the writing witty, the puzzle and plot intriguing and original - and the ending is simply delicious...

    1. It's so often picked as one of the great Golden Age classical-style mysteries and I think it's is quite deserving of the acclaim. I love the ending, it really leaves me wanting to know what happens next!

      Another thing, I loved his Americans. Peter handled the dialect well (though those guys sure said said guys a lot!).

  2. Lovesey is a much underrated writer, I think, especially here in the US where, despite the best efforts of his publisher, the excellent Soho, he seems almost unknown. I've been slowly working my way through his Peter Diamond novels these past few years (with favorite authors I don't binge, but spread the books out a bit; I have five Loveseys waiting on my shelf, heh heh); earlier, I liked the Berties and the Cribbs.

    The False Inspector Dew reflects in its title, I believe, and earlier mystery novel by someone else, and I'm damned if I can remember what it was. Any suggestions would be helpful! (No, I'm not thinking of Tom Stoppard's play The Real Inspector Hound, although that's good too; first seen by me on the London stage with Richard Briers and, I think, Michael Hordern.)

    Lovesey seems to me to be, based on an almost nonexistent encounter with him, one of the nicest folk around. I saw/quasi-met him at a signing session/panel he was a part of many years ago in the Exeter Waterstones. My daughter flirted outrageously with him. As she was perhaps seven or nine at the time, this was par for the course. The four authors arranged themselves for the panel, there was a moment's hush before things started, and my daughter filled that hush with the kind of small-girl whisper that rattles the windows in nearby buildings: "Daddy, he's got bushy eyebrows!" At which point Lovesey turned and waggled them especially for her. For the rest of the evening he made a point of including her in the conversation, as it were. Even if I didn't enjoy his books so much, I'd keep on reading them just for that.

    1. That's a great story! From my experience, Peter is a most gracious man, one of the nicest writers I have known.

      I love Peter's books with Soho, they do such wonderful quality paperback editions, which are getting to be a rarity these days. He's doing a book tour in the US for the new book, so I think he has fans here! I began reading him back in the 1990s, along with PD James, Ruth Rendell, Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill and Simon Brett, a marvelous group of post-Golden Age British crime writers.

      You are probably right about the Dew title, I was thinking of that too. There's Carr's The Four False Weapons, but that's not it! It's a great title though, pithy and most fitting for the book.

  3. He's one of my favourite writers. I've followed him since the 70s and the Cribb novels/TV series. I know that some crime fans didn't really follow anything that he did after dropping that series, which is a terrible shame. The Diamond books maintain a consistently high standard, and are a lovely melding of police procedural and old-fashioned puzzle yarn. One of the lovely things about DEW is the very playful way he plays on reader expectation, carefully leading them up the wrong road. It is very self-consciously a piece of entertainment rather than a serious novel trying to pass itself off as crime novel. It is also refreshingly compact. So many books these days go on forever, so it's nice to read something that doesn't feel the need to include every cough, every blink, every passing thought of the characters.

    1. Yes, indeed, he seems to be one of the post-GA writers who most has an affinity for GA traditions. I know he loved Doug Greene's Carr bio and wrote his Peter Diamond book Bloodhounds as an homage to GA mystery, particularly the locked room problem.

  4. One of my favourite books - it seemed to come from nowhere, and didn't produce any successors, it was just one on his own. I haven't re-read it for ages (and now want to) but I remember a lot about it very clearly. I thought it was very funny and clever, and with excellent character drawing. I like Lovesey vey much, but find his books as varied as my reactions to them! He does sound like a very nice man. I remember being terribly surprised that he wrote Goldengirl, a strange book, made into a film, about a young woman training as an Olympic runner...

  5. "One of my favourite books - it seemed to come from nowhere, and didn't produce any successors, it was just one on his own."

    That's so true, such an interesting step after the Cribb books.

    As I recollect he used to run in school, so I think he always had an interest in running competition. There was also that splendidly odd "wobble" in Wobble to Death.

  6. As a 12 year old he was taken to the first post-War Olympics in London, and afterwards became an athletics fan. He was not very sporty, but wrote lots of non-paid articles, which culminated in a non-fiction book about distance running. He started writing crime fiction when there was a competition to produce a first crime novel which promised a £1000 prize. Write about what you know, hence a crime novel about a Victorian athletic event.

    1. Thanks, ggary! Wobble to Death made a great impression on me when I first read it, with its aspect of Victorian life with which I was completely unfamiliar.