After concocting a wonderful series of historical crime novels around the covertly ingenious Victorian copper, Sergeant Cribb (Waxwork), British author Lovesey turned his talents to a succession of standalone mysteries, including The False Inspector Dew (a 1982 work inspired by the notorious real-life case of convicted murderer Hawley Crippen) and Keystone (1983), which took place in the rough-and-tumble world of silent-film stuntmen.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the author presented a protagonist to rival Cribb. That year brought the release of The Last Detective, which took place in Bath, a former Roman spa resort west of London. Leading that modern-day story’s cast was Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, a petulant, overweight, middle-aged, and technology averse cop who believes in wearing out shoe leather and wearing down suspects to solve a case, and is contemptuous (to say the least) of the community outreach and management-training techniques that have become such a large part of contemporary policing. From that start, Lovesey has grown a series combining fair-play puzzle themes with eccentric players, situations that demonstrate the clash between Britain’s past and present, and much humor mined from Diamond’s frustration in dealing with subordinates who are less old-fashioned in their ways of crime-solving.
The 11th Diamond outing is Stagestruck. And while it’s not as unpredictable or profusely plotted as the last book, Skeleton Hill (2009), it would be a fine place for somebody unfamiliar with this series to begin reading. The case here centers around Bath’s venerable, 200-year-old Theatre Royal, where aging pop singer Clarion Calhoun is hoping to make a triumphant stage debut. On opening night, however, she suddenly starts clawing at her face and screaming, then collapses. The theater is chary of any resulting scandal, and Calhoun herself refuses interviews. But after it’s discovered that something caustic in her makeup caused Calhoun’s agony, Diamond is sent to determine whether a crime has been committed. Suspicion is quickly cast upon dresser Denise Pearsall, who applied the makeup. And after Pearsall takes a deadly fall backstage, it’s assumed she committed suicide out of guilt. Yet Diamond is far from convinced-and readers should be, too.
Lovesey has shown himself to be a master of mystery-making and misdirection, with the prizes to prove it. Stagestruck earns him more kudos for effectively deploying an ensemble cast, particularly journalist-turned-detective Ingeborg Smith. He’s less successful, though, in developing a subplot here about Diamond’s fear of theaters. Yes, it offers an unusual confrontation with a child molester, but it doesn’t do as much as some previous twists (the death of his supremely tolerant spouse in 2002′s Diamond Dust, for instance) to illuminate new depths in the short-fused detective’s character. ~ Jeff Pierce