Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Over the years Peter Lovesey has gotten a deservedly excellent reputation as an author of several different kinds of crime fiction. This feature can only be improved by including some of Lovesey’s work, so let’s do that today. Let’s take a close look at the first of Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond.
The novel begins with the discovery of the body of an unidentified woman in Chew Valley Lake not far from Bristol. Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset Police and his assistant DI John Wigfull are assigned to the case. The first task is identifying the victim; after a few false leads, the police identify her as Geraldine “Gerry” Jackman, a former famous television actor who’s been out of the spotlight for a few years. It’s soon established that she probably didn’t die by drowning, so her death was not an accident. Now Diamond and Wigfull treat this case as a murder and begin to look into Gerry Jackman’s background, family life and friends to see who would have wanted to kill her.
Their first suspect is the victim’s husband, Professor Gregory “Greg” Jackman, a Professor of English at Bath University. He’s a very likely suspect too, since according to him, the marriage was not a happy one. What’s more, he claims that Gerry tried to murder him not long before she herself was killed. Some aspects of his alibi and the rest of his story are verified, but there are enough questions to keep him very much on the suspect list.
As Diamond and Wigfull look into Jackman’s alibi, they discover another suspect Dana Didrikson. She’s the single parent of twelve-year-old Matthew and a company driver for Realbrew Ales, Ltd. Her life and that of Greg Jackman cross when Jackman rescues Matthew from drowning after Matthew falls off the Pulteney Bridge into the River Avon. Jackman and Didrikson meet and although they don’t start an affair, they do get together from time to time and Jackman takes a “big brother/fatherly” interest in Matthew. It takes some time, but Dana Didrikson finally admits while she’s being interviewed that she is interested in Jackman. She also admits that Gerry Jackson came to her house, accused her of having an affair with Greg and threatened her. There’s physical and other evidence against her too, and she is soon arrested and charged with the murder.
There are other suspects though as the details of Gerry Jackman’s complicated life come to light and Diamond isn’t sure that Dana Didrikson is guilty. But then he’s removed from the case when Matthew Didrikson goes to the hospital with what seems like a blackout. It’s strongly suggested that the boy got a concussion after Diamond treated him roughly during a conversation he had with the boy. Diamond is already on thin ice, so to speak. During a prior investigation he was accused of coercing a confession from a murder suspect who ended up being convicted but was later proven innocent. Rather than be consigned to desk duty after this latest allegation Diamond leaves the police force. But he continues an unofficial investigation into Gerry Jackman’s murder and in the end he finds out who really killed the victim and why.
This is in many ways a police procedural. So readers follow along as evidence is collected and witnesses and suspects are interviewed. The solution to the mystery is logical, ‘though not obvious, and the motive makes sense. We also get an “inside look” at police politics as Diamond copes with the fallout from the earlier case that got him in trouble, the allegation that he used force on Matthew Didrikson, and the possibility that his assistant John Wigfull is a “company spy” whose job is to keep tabs on Diamond.
Against that context one of the elements that run through this novel is the conflict between older and newer approaches to police work. Diamond considers himself the last true detective (hence the novel’s title). He believes that there is no substitute for a good search for evidence, using the information that witnesses and suspects give and other “legwork.” He has little patience with computer analyses and reports. In fact, pathologist Dr. Jack Merlin calls Diamond a “genuine gumshoe.” On the other hand, there is much to be said for modern DNA analysis and other developments of the computer era. In the end, it’s Diamond’s old-fashioned sleuthing that pays off but readers are still given the message that more modern approaches are useful too. It’s an interesting discussion.
Point of view is another important element in this novel. The main focus of the story is Gerry Jackman’s murder and the parts of the novel that deal with developments in that case are told from Diamond’s point of view. But we learn about both Greg Jackman’s and Dana Didrikson’s backstories, their meeting and their involvement in the case from their points of view. In that way we learn how Jackman came to meet his wife, what happened on the night he claims she tried to kill him and more importantly the events leading up to the night she was murdered. We also learn Didrikson’s background, how she met Jackman, where she was and what she was doing on the night of the murder, and her explanation for the evidence that implicates her. Because of the different points of view we see several of the same events as through a prism, from different perspectives.
Also woven through this story is the set of characters. Because of the way the story is told, we learn a great deal about the characters, and they are well-rounded. For instance, on one hand, Greg Jackman has some unlikeable qualities. He waited for three weeks to report his wife missing, he doesn’t seem particularly devoted either to his job or to his profession, and he seems to have several secrets to hide. As we get to know him though, we see that there’s more than meets the eye. Even though he’s a suspect Lovesey doesn’t paint him as an unsympathetic character. The same is true of Dana Didrikson. On one hand she is also a suspect in the Jackman murder. She admits to an interest in the victim’s husband and as it comes out, she’s been involved in some shady dealings about which she might know more than she’s saying. But as we get to know her we see that there’s more to her too than it seems on the surface.
And then there’s Peter Diamond himself. He’s smart and intuitive, but he’s an ordinary cop. He’s a little eccentric (there’s a funny scene at the beginning of the novel for instance where he takes a nap on a mortuary trolley) but he’s not what you’d call weird. He believes in digging and looking for clues to solve cases. He’s old-fashioned in a lot of ways and he can be brusque. But he’s a caring husband and we can see the compassionate side of him as he begins to believe that Dana Didrikson may not be guilty. We care about him too as he deals with the reality of not being on the police force any more. It’s easy to be on his side as he tracks down the evidence.
The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is a police procedural that features an old-fashioned cop, some interesting characters and a fascinating debate about approaches to solving a crime. But what’s your view? Have you read The Last Detective? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 23 July/Tuesday 24 July – In The Shadow of the Glacier – Vicki Delany
Monday 30 July/Tuesday 31 July – Inspector Ghote’s First Case – H.R.F. Keating
Monday 6 August/Tuesday 7 August – Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson