Peter Lovesey needs little introduction to aficionados of crime fiction. Known for his Victorian-era police procedurals featuring Sergeant Cribb written during the 1970s and a staple on British television in the 1980s, Lovesey now pens a series featuring Peter Diamond, a modern-day police detective in Bath. But Lovesey has also written a score of other works of fiction and nonfiction, some under the pseudonym of Peter Lear.
Of his 2011 Diamond novel, Stagestruck, Marilyn Stasio dubbed it a “brilliantly conceived and smartly executed mystery set in the hallowed Theater Royal of Bath,” in the New York Times Book Review. Of that same work, Publishers Weekly noted, “Lovesey proves he has few peers as a crafter of contemporary fair-play whodunits.” His newest Diamond novel, Cop to Corpse, is just out from Soho, and Publishers Weekly had glowing words in its starred review: “Nail-biting…. Lovesey leavens the suspense with Diamond’s trademark gallows humor, and closes with one of his cleverest solutions.”
Lovesey has won just about every writing prize that is out there, including the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger and Gold Dagger, the Barry Award, the Macavity Award, the Anthony Award, the Ellery Queen Readers’ Award–well, you get the idea. The New York Times Book Review dubbed him a “master of the classic puzzle,” and the Wall Street Journal noted that “Lovesey’s delicate balance of humor and suspense [is] one of the delights of contemporary crime fiction.”
Peter, it is an honor and delight to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. You know the drill–let’s start things off with a discussion of your crime scene.
Soon after I quit teaching to become a full time writer – about 35 years ago – I moved with my wife Jax from London suburbia to a village close to the city of Bath, a place we both loved. Having gambled on going freelance, we decided we might as well live where we would be happy. Of course it takes time to get to know your location well. I didn’t start my Bath-based series with a book called The Last Detective for about twelve years after the move. In another seven years we moved again, to Chichester, on the south coast, so most of the series has been written from a place 100 miles away. And I do visit often.
No city in Britain compares with Bath. Although it takes its name from the baths built during the Roman occupation it was made fashionable as a spa town in the Georgian period (the late 1700s and early 1800s). Almost all of the architecture is from this era, elegant and built with the honey-colored local stone. Of course this makes it a popular tourist attraction – and that’s good for me, because most of my readers have visited there.
Well, it has to feature strongly, sometimes more strongly than most of the characters. Although I’m writing a modern police series, I like to find ways of weaving in the history of Bath and its rich literary connections, using little-known stories about such writers as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. Did you know Jane Austen’s aunt was a shop-lifter?
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
Here’s an example. I learned a bit of trivia about Mary Shelley, that she wrote most of Frankenstein while staying in an apartment over a shop a few yards from Bath Abbey. This inspired The Vault, a novel about an American professor who discovers the vault below the shop and finds a corpse there. To answer the question, yes, the stories frequently arise from detailed knowledge of the city and its history. The research is a joy.
How does Peter Diamond interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Diamond?
Peter Diamond is an ex-Met cop with a grounding in the tougher areas of London. For him, Bath is too genteel, too middle-class, and his rough methods of policing at first get him into trouble. He resigns when he is up before the Assistant Chief Constable in The Last Detective, and it took me two books, Diamond Solitaire and The Summons, to get him back to work. The titles give clues to the process. By degrees, he settles into the CID team, but he’s always abrasive. He would say he’s a realist. He’s also aware that this lovely city is all about facades, and that behind the great crescents and streets you can see gutters and drainage systems, soot-black walls and overgrown gardens.
Bathonians seem to enjoy reading about the darker side of their city. When I wrote Stagestruck, set mainly in the Theatre Royal, the theatre director kindly allowed us to have a launch party inside the theatre. And when the paperback appeared, I gave a talk from the stage, an eerie experience, considering that there is a well-attested theatre ghost, the grey lady, who watches from one of the boxes. The books sell widely in more than thirty languages. I don’t get to read the reviews because no one is there to translate for me, but I get letters sometimes, notably from Japan. Please send me a photograph of yourself. Black and white is OK, but if possible in the pink.
There was much talk a few years ago of the “canteen culture” among the police, their outspoken views exchanged over lunch and coffee breaks. The canteen at Manvers Street Police Station, Bath, found its way into my series and allowed me as the writer to get some canteen culture as well as informal chat and gossip into the story. Last summer, twenty years into the series, I learned to my delight that the police were having an open day. I went along and did the tour and asked when we were going to be shown the canteen. I’d put it on the basement level in my books. “Canteen?” said the officer showing us around. “We haven’t had a canteen here for years. There’s a little kitchen on each floor with a microwave and a fridge, and that’s it.”
Of the Diamond novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
From The Last Detective:
“The first frost. People had talked all summer of the damaged ozone layer and the greenhouse effect, unable to accept that weeks of steady sunshine were possible in the English climate. Now normality was restored. On this chilly morning the geraniums in the window-boxes of Bath had a wan, defeated look that Peter Diamond noted with a cynical eye as he waited in a traffic queue on his way up Manvers Street towards the police station. This year the Parks and Gardens Department had spared no effort trying to wrest the title of top floral city from Bath’s main rival, Exeter. Every sill, ledge and surface had been stacked with pots, even the roofs of the bus shelters. Not a lamp-post had been without its hanging basket. Such enthusiasm! Such commitment! To no avail: Exeter had retained the title. Bath’s abundant flowers were losers. Diamond, too much the policeman to take a few wilting geraniums as his text for the day, still wished someone would cart them away.”
I enjoy humorous writing, and my favorites are Donald E. Westlake, James Thurber and Evelyn Waugh. This is going to sound pretentious, but if anyone influenced me about location it was Thomas Hardy. As a boy I raced through all his novels and found the way he used the Dorset setting was magical.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
It would either be Greenwich, Connecticut, where my daughter Kathy and family live, or Shrewsbury, England, where my son Phil lives with his wife Jacqui. When it comes to this kind of choice, people matter more than places. Whether Kathy or Phil would want their parents on their doorsteps is another matter …
What’s next for Diamond?
He is launched into an all action story called Cop to Corpse in pursuit of a serial killer of cops, the Somerset Sniper.
Peter, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information about Peter Lovesey, visit his home page.