Thursday, June 6, 2024

Lovesey's Bathtub Companion: Reader, I Buried Them (2022), by Peter Lovesey

Back in the 1980s I think my Mom joined a book club of some sort and received as a "free gift" something called The Agatha Christie Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion (1986).  How many people actually read the book while soaking in the bath, I don't know.  I don't believe I ever read any of it in the bath, but I certainly did read it.  

In the Christie Bathtub Companion there was an introduction by Julian Symons, who was everywhere in the mystery world in those days, where among other things he listed his favorite Christies. (The only one of the list which I remember now is The Pale Horse, which I think he called a "goodish late specimen.")  There were also all sorts of odds and ends, including a poem by someone about her saving her last precious unread Christie novel, which she lovingly called "my Agatha Crystal."  (My last unread Christie novel is Passenger to Frankfurt, about which I can't get that effusive, having started and stopped reading it three times now.  Maybe someday....)  

Peter Lovesey's sixth and latest short story collection, the wryly-titled Reader, I Buried Them--the title is a play on the famous line in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, "Reader, I married him."--offers a sort of retrospective look at the English Crime Dean's career as a writer of short mystery fiction, including, among other deadly delights, his very first published crime story, "The Bathroom," which was published in the great British short crime fiction anthology series Winter's Crimes over a half-century ago in 1973.  

This was back when your own Passing Tramp was in the third grade earnestly pledging allegiance to the flag and reciting the Lord's Prayer.  But my heart was really set on murder.  

I would read my first mysteries--Christies, of course--the next year, during the summer of 1974, when my family was living in an apartment in Mexico City.  I also read my mom's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I remember lying curled up on the loveseat by the big window overlooking the street reading a story I swear was called "The Machete Murderer," where the wife winds up getting chopped to pieces at the end of the tale.  Just the reading for an eight year old!  I loved it--it was thrilling stuff for someone who had been reading Sally, Dick and Jane "adventures" not long before.  Sally, Dick and Jane never solved any murders.  They just watched Spot run.  

I also read, in Pocket paperback American editions (you could get them in Mexico City at Sanborns department store), And Then There Were None, Easy to Kill, aka Murder Is Easy, The ABC Murders and Funerals Are Fatal, aka After the Funeral--a pretty sinister quartet of murder tales!

In the only true crime piece in Reader, I Buried Him--which, speaking of bathrooms again, is entitled "The Tale of Three Tubs: George Joseph Smith and the Brides in the Bath" (2015) (there's another literary reference in this title)--Lovesey mentions having first read about famed serial murderer George Joseph Smith back when he was ten years old.  This was in a book detailing notorious English murders (then not nearly so far off in time) that had been salvaged after the Lovesey home had been destroyed in 1944 by a V-1 flying bomb.  Some 6000 Londoners were killed by these bombs, which constituted Germany's last gasp of air terror.  

I think the taste for reading tales of crime and murder frequently develops at a young age.  Indeed, some of us skip right over the anodyne children's mysteries (which inversely I have gotten interested in recently) and go right to the grim fairy tales of adult murder fiction.  

George Joseph Smith, the brides in the bath murderer

I mention Lovesey's "The Bathroom" and "Tale of Three Tubs" because both of these short works are included in Reader, I Buried Them.  They make a natural pairing because the former tale is a nod to the brides in the bath murders, as you will see.  Lovesey tells a charming story about "The Bathroom" in his foreword.  After it was published in Winter's Crimes, he received a letter from Ruth Rendell wherein she praised the story and queried where the house in the story was located.  (It is a real place and Rendell was always interested in creepy houses.)  This collegial praised prompted Lovesey to submit the story to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but it was rejected.  

During the Seventies, Lovesey devoted his writing primarily to his Victorian era Sergeant Cribb series of eight novels, but in 1978, the year the Cribb series ended, he published his second short crime story, "The Locked Room," in Winter's Crimes.  He likewise submitted this story to EQMM and this time it was accepted and the next year published there under the title "Behind the Locked Door." (Editor Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen fame loved to change titles.) 

Emboldened by this success, Lovesey resubmitted"The Bathroom" to EQMM but heard nothing back from them.  He assumed it had been rejected yet again and was disgusted with himself for having had the temerity to resubmit a rejected story. Then in 1981 he attended a crime writers conference in Stockholm and found to his mortification that Fred Dannay was among the attendees.  

Embarrassed to meet the Great Man after the peculiar affair of "The Bathroom," Lovesey tried to avoid a face-to-face encounter with Dannay at the conference.  "He was easy to spot in a crowd," Peter amusingly divulges of Dannay in discussing his avoidance tactics, "because he was bald and bearded with thick dark-rimmed glasses.  But he was also a short man who disappeared from view behind more substantial figures like Julian Symons and Christianna Brand."  All was going well, as it were, until the moment when....

Well, I'll leave the rest for you to read for yourself.  I'll just add that as a matter of record "The Bathroom" did appear in EQMM in August 1981, under the title "A Bride in the Bath."  In 1982, Dannay accepted two more Peter Lovesey stories for EQMM: "Butchers," which five years later became the title tale in Lovesey's first short story collection, and "Taking Possession," which appeared in the magazine in November, not long after Dannay's death at age 76. 

There are two additional earlier pieces in Reader: a long overlooked story called "Oracle of the Dead" (1988) and a poem, very nicely constructed, called "A Monologue for Mystery Lovers" (1999), which delves into the question of whether Miss Marple really was, um, a maiden lady, shall we say?

Gas Light in its 1941 Broadway 
incarnation Angel Street
starring Vincent Price 
as the fiendish husband 

The additional fourteen stories are more recent, eleven of them having been published between 2008 and 2020 and three of them--"And the Band Played On," "Formidophobia" and "Gaslighting"--being  original to the volume.  These constitute, I believe, Lovesey's 98th through 100th short stories, making the book quite an occasion.  95 of these stories were published between 1980 and 2020, a rate of over two a year for four decades.  Surely Peter Lovesey is one of mystery fiction's most notable authors, in both its long and short forms.  

"Gaslighting"--about the death by hanging of an actress during a stage production of, yes, Gas Light--is one of the purer detective stories of the bunch and quite enjoyable.  It feels very up-to-date with its depiction of texting and its use of the a term that has become very fashionable of late in its application to the rise of that gruesome gaslighter par excellence, Donald Trump. 

As with several of the best stories in this collection, there's an effective interplay between the title and the theme.  (See also "Sweet and Low" below.)  

"Formidophobia" is an intricately plotted story about--well, I'll let you find out about this one (and what the heck formidophobia is) for yourself.  Don't cheat and google it, now.   

 "And the Band Played On" is about an old man suffering from dementia who returns after a long absence to his family.  He keeps singing that same song.  Why?  My Dad uses to sing a lot in his later years, all these songs from the Forties I had never heard of, like "Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga."  You should write a story about that one, Peter!

There's also a good Christmas murder story with Lovesey's primary series detective Peter Diamond cleverly called "A Three Pie Problem." Yes, there's yet another literary reference there. 

"Remaindered" is the longest story, a novelette really.  It's an entertaining mystery set at a small-town Pennsylvania bookstore.  How can you not like a story with a mobster character (offstage) named Gritty Bologna?  Agatha Christie first editions play a role in the criminal events.  

The shortest tale--an amusing short short--is "Agony Column," about a wife who fears her husband is plotting to murder her. (What else do husbands do in crime stories?)

Of the remaining eight stories, Edgar Allan Poe himself appears in "The Deadliest Tale of All," where the real villain is the detestable Rufus Griswold.  "Ghosted," about a very decent proposal indeed made to a midlist romance writer, reminds me rather of a certain Ethel Lina White novel, while "The Homicidal Hat" has a murder method that challenges John Rhode for originality.  

"Sweet and Low," about the theft of a beekeeper's hives (and much more mayhem) is one of my favorites in the collection, as is the title story, about multiple murder among a group of monks.  It reminded me of the board game Mystery of the Abbey if you know that, as well as a short story by the late Robert Barnard (I forget the name): a sendup of a group of progressive leftists.  Not that Lovesey's story is political.  It manages a contemplative ending, shall we say.  

My hardcover edition of Reader, I Buried Them, published by Soho Press, is a lovely book, harking back to the great days of short story publisher Crippen & Landru.  It's makes a grand tribute to a Grand Master of Mystery. 

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