Peter Lovesey Interviewed by Martin Edwards
Your Peter Diamond
novel, BLOODHOUNDS, is in many respects a homage to the classic detective novel. Was
writing it a labor of love?
A labor of love, or just a labor of Lovesey? Let's say that I enjoyed myself, and that always minimises the toil, tears and sweat. I'm no expert on the classic detective novel, but the people who are devoted to them interest me enormously. The "Bloodhounds" of the title are a group of mystery readers who meet to discuss books. Some of them are passionately devoted to Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr. Others are more excited by contemporary writers. One woman talks of nothing else but Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I've met them all at various times.
One element of the book that is sure to have particular appeal to fans of traditional mysteries is a splendid locked room puzzle. "Miracle problems" are particularly associated with the Golden Age between the two world wars and some critics nowadays regard them as played-out. Yet BLOODHOUNDS is, for all the allusions to mystery novels of the past, undoubtedly a book of the 1990s and there is much more to it than a sequence of splendid plot twists. So what prompted you to include this bow to the ghost of John Dickson Carr - and how tricky did you find it to construct the locked room problem?
I doubt whether any form of plot is wholly played out. I wouldn't care to be locked up myself and made to read locked room puzzles, but equally I soon tire of shoot-outs on the mean streets. The challenge was to construct a puzzle that worked, and was plausible in a modern setting. I enjoyed trying out the possibilities. The art, I suspect, is like a conjuring trick in which the presentation matters as much as the mechanics.
I recall that, a year or so ago, we bumped into each other in the Murder One book store in London's Charing Cross Road. You recommended to me then Douglas G. Greene's biography of Carr - and, after buying and reading the book, I can say that your enthusiasm for it was wholly justified. Presumably you are or were a Carr fan - and if so, do you think his books have anything to offer the modern crime fiction fan or writer?
I'm old enough to have had my first two or three books reviewed by Dickson Carr in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the early seventies, and he was generous with his criticism, so perhaps I owe him this book. Douglas Greene's John Dickson Carr: the Man Who Explained Miracles must be one of the best biographies yet produced of a mystery writer. Besides being a fascinating portrayal of a complex personality, it shows the extraordi-nary range of a writer who took risks, tried new things and produced some stunning surprises. I've read enough of his best work to recommend him to anyone.
The late Derek Raymond, who is mentioned in BLOODHOUNDS, was a writer at the opposite end of the spectrum from Carr with his relentlessly grim "black" novels. A character in the book, Rupert Darcy, is in one or two respects reminiscent of Raymond and he has little time for the "cosy" school of writing. There is, arguably, an increasing divide between those who favour mysteries of a broadly traditional kind and those who believe that hardboiled crime fiction is more honest and realistic - and thus superior. What are your views?
What a loss Robin Cook (Derek Raymond) was. He was the funniest and most charming of men, deeply committed to the cause of what he called the black novel, yet willing to concede the merit of other approaches. The Fresh Blood group in Britain is impoverished without him. I'm sorry if there really is a divide between different groups of us, and I think he would have been saddened by it, too. Surely we can laugh at each other and trade some insults, as Robin did, and still recognise that we're in the same business. As to whether Rupert in the book is based on Robin, I never comment on questions like that. I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw. The publisher is saying across his desk to a would-be writer, "You state at the beginning that your characters bear no resemblance to any person living or dead. That's what's wrong with it."
Because BLOODHOUNDS is such a carefully structured book, I would like to ask you about tech-niques you adopted in writing it. Did you start with the eventual solution in mind or did the characters and setting come first? Can you describe the process by which the book was composed - (without giving away any secrets, of course)?
You've given me some tough questions, and this is the toughest yet. l'm such a slow producer of words that I like to think through the plot before I start Chapter One. The plot elements arrive in a disorganised way. When BLOODHOUNDS was in the planning stage, some friends invited me for a canal trip in a narrowboat. The locked room mystery came to me that summer evening. The concept of the "Bloodhounds" came from meeting people over the years who are amazingly well-informed about mysteries. People like you, Martin.
One of the pleasures of the book is the double twist ending. Ruth Rendell has said in the past that she achieves an added element of surprise by chang-ing her mind about the explanation for the mystery when she starts writing the final pages of her Wexford novels. Was your approach similar or did you always have the extra twist in mind?
I recognised the need for something extra. First, I groped towards the obvious solution, then jettisoned it and tried for one more surprising, yet still simple in solution.
The historic city of Bath, which is quite close to your home, is vividly realised in BLOODHOUNDS. What appeals to you about Bath as a setting for a crime story?
When I wrote the first book of this series, THE LAST DETECTIVE (1991), Bath had not often been used by mystery writers. Since then -- and I don't think it has anything to do with me -- it has been taken as a setting by a bunch of writers, Lizbie Brown, Margaret Duffy, Christopher Lee and Michael Z. Lewin, who are turning them out at a terrifying rate. Bath is awash with blood and gore. In my case, living near the city for fifteen years has given me a better understanding of this place than any I've known. The size is ideal. I can walk from one location to the next, and I know all the best places to stop for refreshment.
Your latest detective, Peter Diamond, has had a checkered career. I remember being startled, whilst reading THE LAST DETECTIVE, the book which opened the series, when he resigned from the police force during the course of the story. Now he is back on the strength -- shades of Holmes' return from the Reichenbach Falls! Was this development
Panned from the outset, or did you originally regard him merely as a single book character?
Every writer has had the experience of a character acting ways that could not have been predicted at the outset. Diamond was being unjustly reprimanded by the Assistant Chief Constable and I suddenly realised that he was about to resign and storm out. I hoped he might become a character I could use in a series, so the resignation wasn't planned, and it presented me with a problem that I had to write two more books to resolve.
The previous book in the Diamond series, THE SUMMONS, was acclaimed in "Reviewed To Death" and also won the CWA's Silver Dagger. You have over the years won many awards and had innumerable favourable reviews. How much attention do you pay to them and do you take constructive criti-cisms from reviewers (or even the occasional downright bad review) into account when deciding what and how to write next?
I'm not one of those who can ignore reviews. If I'm being written about, I want to know what it says. But it's wise to remember a quote I once saw: "getting a good review is like having the hangman admire your pretty neck." I don't think a review has ever influenced my choice of what to do next.
One obvious difference between the Diamond books and most of your other works is that you began as a specialist in the field of history-mystery. How different is it, writing a series set in the present day as opposed to one based in the past -- and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Big question. Some advantages of the history-mystery over contemporary settings are (a) you don't have to keep updated on police methods, forensic technology and changes in the law; (b) the motives are more interesting and the murders more insidious; and (c) you can't get into trouble writing about the locals. The contemporary story scores on (a) convenience of checking locations; (b) the ease of finding points of contact with the reader; and (c) you don't get letters from readers pointing out anachronisms. I even had one from Robert Barnard.
When writing history-mysteries, how do you set about striking a balance between the inclusion of period detail and development of plot and character?
I don't consciously do anything about it. Period detail is distracting and superfluous if it seems to be paraded for effect, so I try and make sure it is intrinsic to the story.
Some of your most dazzling work, it seems to me, has been done in the short form. You have written so many short stories that they must have a particular appeal for you -- what is it?
Thanks for that. If I have to offer something to St. Peter as mitigation for a misspent life, it will be a collection of short stories. The form is ideal to work in. When you're making a living from your writing, as I do, you can't always take risks with a novel, but short stories allow for experiment. So I've tried some dangerous things: "Youdunnit", in which the reader committed the murder; "Arabella's Answer", told through an advice column in a women's magazine; and a cat story in which -- perish the thought -- the cat is the victim.
Can you give a couple of examples of how you have been inspired to write particular short sto-ries? Have they come from, say, an idea about a particular motive or character -- and do you find that the process of writing a short story differs fundamentally from the process of writing a mys-tery novel?
A snatch of conversation overheard in a teashop - "It's so unlike him not to be here. He's always so reliable. Never missed a day's work" -- formed the basis of a story called "Butchers." The sight of a compost heap, and hearing the gardener claim it would rot anything down in time, was the impetus for "The Crime of Miss Oyster Brown." Obviously there's less organisation involved in a short story than a novel.
At present, you are running in tandem your series about Peter Diamond and Bertie, the Prince of Wales. The enormous success of the Diamond books means, I hope, that the series will run and run. Are you equally keen to continue with Bertie for the foreseeable future? And is there any chance of a return for Sergeant Cribb?
I gave up writing about Sergeant Cribb after eight books, and I usually say that TV is such a powerful medium that the actor replaces your own concept of the character. But I also think I'd done all I could with my two Victorian policemen. Any ideas I had in reserve were used up in the TV episodes I wrote with Jax, my wife. I turned to stand-alone books and found the experience liberating. Some years went by before I returned to the Victorian period with a new character in Bertie, the Prince of Wales, giving his own account of his career as a private detective. Bertie will co-exist with Diamond -- who was a big departure for me, my first contemporary sleuth. There's another Diamond after BLOODHOUNDS. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.
Finally, two of your most outstanding novels have been one-offs: THE FALSE INSPECTOR DEW and the perhaps less well-known, but equally compelling ON THE EDGE. What was the appeal for you of those books and do you have any plans to write another non-series novel in the foreseeable future?
They stretched me, those books. I also wrote ROUGH CIDER and KEYSTONE about the same time: all very different in mood and structure. It does require resilience to keep producing different books, and publishers tell me (wrapping it up as tactfully as they can) that most readers prefer to find a writer they can pigeon-hole and a sleuth they can return to. So I'm content to produce several books in series with the possibility of breaking out again any time. The best is yet to come, or why go on? Article originally appeared in Deadly Pleasures
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