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the last detective

8 may 2012

Peter Lovesey's Last Detective is now over 20 years old, but was new to me. I don't really remember how I came across it. I was getting on an airplane, as I always seem to be doing, and suddenly I saw this paperback on my shelf. The back copy began: "A nude female corpse has been found floating in a large reservoir . . ." and that was enough information for me to trust three hours of flyover country to Peter Lovesey.

Lovesey's Peter Diamond is "the last detective" in the sense of being a cranky old holdout who believes in legwork, liberal social use of caffeine and alcohol, and the odd browbeaten confession – as opposed to DNA tests, computer-generated lists of suspects, and esoteric analyses of trace evidence. In the case of the nude female corpse, the victim is identified immediately thanks to a good old popular appeal for information. The public overwhelmingly reports that she is their favorite old soap-opera character. Diamond proceeds to think the public is delusional (though they turn out to be perfectly correct).

Detection proceeds by fits and starts, down wrong pathways, and by means of perverse human nature in The Last Detective. It's a placid, slow-boiled (though not soft-boiled) murder mystery; Diamond is a stubborn, patient sleuth. In some ways, his combination of torpid pace and occasional choleric eruption links The Last Detective to the "cosy," the English mystery genre par excellence. Haste is not the order of the day, and our hero is easily distracted onto quaint by-ways of provincial life (the setting is Bath). But then some violent incident will shock everyone back into urgency again.

To make matters cosier, much of the plot of The Last Detective centers on some missing letters attributed to Jane Austen. I deliberately didn't read too much about the Austen subplot on the back of the book, or I might never have opened it. Any English mystery that incorporates Jane Austen runs the risk of turning mannered, if not out-and-out twee. But fortunately for The Last Detective, there is little of the gentler variety of Austenphilia present. One of the characters – for a while the prime suspect – is the nude woman's widower, a university professor of English. He is supposed to know all about Jane Austen; in real life such a professor might or mightn't, but Lovesey has the notion common to many who write about universities from the outside: that all English faculty divide their time equally between thinking about Shakespeare and thinking about Jane Austen. In any event, matters hinge on the disposition of those missing letters; but like most prized objects in mysteries, at one point they become MacGuffins, and the plot is all the better for it.

Peter Diamond spends much of this novel having a midlife crisis. In that respect, he is reminiscent of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano (who is in turn reminiscent of Maigret and Wallander and many another aging male police commissioner). But Diamond is a distinct, quirky character. He is happily married to a longsuffering, quirky wife. His life doesn't revolve around the police (though it can't help but revolve around detection). And though childless, he has a way with kids – a feature most grumpy aging fictional detectives lack. I may have to make a less serendipitous effort to read more of his adventures.

Lovesey, Peter. The Last Detective. 1991. New York: Soho, 2000.