Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Peter Lovesey rides again with The Stone Wife

Soho Crime, 2014
355 pp

arc, from the publisher (thank you!)

I have an entire room devoted to crime from the UK, and several shelves right in the center of that room hold volumes of Peter Lovesey's work. I first discovered his books when I found an old Penguin edition of Wobble to Death at a used book store, and from there I made a point of collecting every mystery/crime novel he's ever written. The Stone Wife is the fourteenth Diamond entry, and while it may not be as lively as some of Lovesey's previous novels, it's still a good light read. 

The story begins in an auction house where there's a bidding war going on. The fact that a couple of the bids are coming by phone is somewhat surprising, because normally the auction sale consisted of the "disposal of old bits brought in to the Bath office for valuation, many of them bric-a-brac or tat."  Obviously, there's something of value that's being auctioned off in lot 129, and whatever it is must be worth quite valuable.  The bidding started at five hundred pounds, rising  to an amazing twenty-four thousand when suddenly,  three masked men with guns come in, determined to take lot 129 for themselves.  This draws the ire of the winner of the bid, who becomes irate when the masked men start to cart off his prize, and in the process of trying to take it back he gets shot and killed.  The would-be thieves flee, leaving very little in the way of clues behind.  When lot 129 is uncovered, it turns out to be a medieval carving of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Wife of Bath," one of the pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales.  The dead man is identified as John Gildersleeve, a professor of Medieval English Literature. As Diamond and his team start to delve into his past, questions begin to surface, but the biggest one is this: was the shooting of this man a random act perpetrated by thieves, or had someone set up  some "Byzantine" plot culminating in Gildersleeve's murder?  While Ingeborg goes undercover to see if she can track the source of the guns, the rest of the team get busy trying to figure out exactly what happened by focusing on Gildersleeve himself. 

As with many of the Diamond novels, The Stone Wife reaches into Bath's historical and archaeological past; since Chaucer figures prominently in this novel there is also some discussion about the author's life, history, and works as well. The plot is not at all complicated and very easy to read -- this is definitely crime light, in a good way that brings out some of Diamond's little trademark eccentricities while he and the team solve a most baffling case with a wide array of potential suspects.   There are also a few scenes that draw the reader to the plight of modern development  impinging on historical or natural landscapes, and the powerlessness of locals who try to stop it.  On the other hand, the liveliness that exists between Diamond and the other members of his crime-solving team just isn't there this time as it has been in the past and I missed it.  Another point: there was much more going on than I felt necessary in terms of Ingeborg's undercover work -- imho, that part took up more space and reader attention than it really needed to, and sort of drew away from the main thrust of the story.    

If you haven't read the Diamond novels before, you could still read The Stone Wife as a standalone, but you'll have a much better grasp of the intrepid Inspector if you start from the beginning of the series. This is a good novel for readers of crime light -- not that there's anything light about a murder, but there's no major character angst, no gratuitous violence or sex, and it really is a good old-fashioned murder mystery that you can just curl up and escape with for a few hours. While it's not my normal thing, I will always make time to catch up on what Peter Diamond and his crew are up to.  Recommended, especially for those who like their crime and crimesolvers on the the tame side. 

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