Iain's Leisure Reading

Peter Lovesey - The Sergeant Cribb Series

I came across three Peter Lovesey books in the 1 bargain section of "The Works" bookshop. I noticed that they were the first three in the Sergeant Cribb historical detective fiction series, that Peter Lovesey was a multi award winning writer and so I thought "why not, lets give them a try." Peter Lovesey wrote two main series - the Victorian Era Cribb, 8 book series (1970 to 1978), and the later contemporary, Bath based, Peter Diamond 17 plus book series (1991 to 2017 and still going, I think).

Peter Lovesey was born in Middlesex in 1936, and educated at Hampton Grammar School. Aged 19 he then progressed to Reading University but in 1955 could not study English without a latin qualification and so had to settle for Fine Art with History and English as elective subjects. His essays so impressed his English tutors that they allowed him onto the English course after all. He graduated with honours in 1958, then did 3 years National service in the RAF as an education officer. This gave him an entrance to a 14 year teaching career ending up as Head of General Education at what is now West London College. He became a full time writer in 1975.

He had married Jacqueline Lewis back in 1959, and they now live near Chichester. They had two children, Kathy in 1960, and Phil in 1963. Phil followed his dad in that he also became a teacher, and then also wrote crime novels ! Peter won awards from the British Crime Writers Association and various Lifetime Achievement awards in France, the UK, and America. He wrote various other assorted books, three under the pen name of Peter Lear.

Wobble to Death     (1970)

I read this book in May, 2019.

One of the things I like about crime fiction is that it can be set in a wide variety of places - anywhere in the UK, including Shetland, and almost anywhere in the world from Sweden and Norway to Alaska, to Malaysia, etc - and in a similarly wide variety of times. "Wobble to Death" is book one in the Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray series, and is set in the Victorian London of 1879. The book won a Macmillan/Panther first crime novel prize.

The book opens with us meeting various competitors in a 6 day endurance walk/ run, apparently all the rage in the 1870s. The idea was to walk as far as possible in the alloted time, stopping as long or as little as you like for sleep, food, and toilet breaks. Captain Chadwick was an officer and a gentleman who usually did his walking along open roads. Mr Darrell is also a professional walker (a Ped) who did his walking round and round indoor tracks. These endurance races were called Wobbles, and one such wobble was arranged by a promoter, a Mr Herriot, to take place in the Islington Agricultural Hall. This was usually a cattle mart, and the smell of the animals was everywhere. This was the first meeting of Chadwick versus Darrell. They were to compete in the inner of two concentric tracks, eight circuits to a mile, and the other competitors, riff raff, jostled around the outer track, seven circuits to the mile. Erskine Chadwick, the favourite, had his former batman Harvey to prepare his meals, etc, and Charles Darrell had a trainer Monk to assist him, and his wife Cora also visited at assorted times. The other competitors were mostly a mixed bunch of tough ruffians, but there was a surpringly small man there too - Mr Mostyn-Smith. All were there for the money, but Mostyn-Smith who had a medical degree was testing his scientific nourishment theories. If he did well he would market a range of health foods. There was a lot of money to be won, and a lot of gambling. An "orchestra" had been hired to entertain the attending crowds.

Its a good evocation of time and place, and the first five chapters are all about the excitement of the endurance race. Whilst Darrell is racing his attractive wife needs needs alternative company, i.e. a succession of men visitors. Darrell collapses and dies of apparent exhaustion in chapter six, but it turns out to be poisoning and so we meet DS Cribb and DC Thackeray. Crib is about 40, tall and wiry, and Thackey is slightly older, stocky, and well built. Surprisingly we don't learn much more about our two detectives - but we learn that there is a Mrs Cribb at the very end of the book.

There is a second murder, and the question is can Cribb and Thackeray identify the murderer within six days - after which all the suspects will scatter and disappear. Thackeray does most of the foot work, but is no fool, and Cribb is always interested in getting his input. The mystery is not solved by Cribb until the very end, and there is an exciting handsom cab chase through foggy London.

I thought it was all a bit underplayed and understated, but well enough written, and a clever enough plot. We will need to see how the series progresses, and perhaps we will learn more about Cribb's and Thackeray's private lives in later outings.

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