Lovesey, Peter. The Last Detective.

NY: Doubleday, 1991.

Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, late of London and now a homicide investigator in Bristol and Bath, is large of body and (in his own mind) larger than life. He believes in the death penalty and the old methods of investigating a case. Computers and other examples of new technology, including pocket calculators and microwaves, are just a fad as far as he’s concerned. His style is to push people until they confess — which got him in trouble in a recent case in which the wrong man went to prison, but he still thinks his actions were justified.

Now a drowned, naked body has turned up a lake and Diamond knows it has to be murder. But there are problems with the story, or with the way the author tells it. The first few chapters go along in the expected way — outlining the discovery of the body, allowing Superintendent Diamond to display his caustic temper (he regularly reduces the females members of the clerical support staff to tears), and finally reaching the point where the murdered woman can be identified. But then the narrative voice switches to the husband of the victim, a university English professor, and he’s a very different sort of person from Diamond. We hear from him the story of how he saved a young schoolboy from drowning in the turbulence below a bridge over the Avon, and then became acquainted with the grateful mother, and how his ex-television-star wife was behaving erratically and in a highly paranoid manner. She even, at one point, tried to poison him and then burn him to death.

And then we go back to Diamond and his by-the-book junior partner, Wigfull — whom Diamond strongly suspects of having been planted by the Chief Constable to keep an eye on him. The thing is, both men seem to settle first on Prof. Jackman as the killer — until an alibi turns up that clears him of any possible suspicion. And then they switch to Dana, the rescued boy’s mother, as the next obvious murderer. This sort of blinkered focus on a single suspect happens all the time in real life, of course, but it’s still very bad practice among police detectives, and one has to wonder how someone following that method ever got to be a DI, like Wigfull, much less a Superintendent, like Diamond.

Then the POV switches yet again, this time to Dana, as she describes events as she saw and interpreted them. (I won’t go into further detail with the plot so as not to spoil things for the reader.) And then it’s back to Diamond as the narrator again. This backing-and-forthing is very distracting and not a particularly successful narrative strategy. Had this been a first novel, I wouldn’t make much of it, but Lovesey is far from a beginner at this stuff. Actually, the last quarter of the book, which takes place after a shocking event in the career of Mr. Diamond, is considerably better, I think, than anything that came before and it’s that that rescues the story — mostly. When the real murderer is finally revealed, following a Perry-Mason-style courtroom scene, we are forced to assume that it’s all down to Diamond’s intuition, since no actual physical evidence is ever introduced to prove the case.

I have to say, in any case, that I don’t much care for Diamond’s smugly self-satisfied personality or bullying methods. They certainly don’t make him a sympathetic lead character. However brilliant his intuition, I don’t think I would trust him, once he had decided for himself who ought to have dunnit. This is the first in what is apparently a reasonably successful series, but I don’t know that I will bother to hunt up the next one.

Published in: on 15 November 2012 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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