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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey (c1991)

Written more than 20 years ago, age has not withered nor custom staled the infinite variety of the first in Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series. In what seems such prescient writing now, Peter Diamond -- how unusual to give your main character your own name -- abhors the acceptance of the unimpeachability of scientific methods in determining whodunnit, while at the same time acknowledging its inevitability. Diamond is the "last detective" because he still uses his own faculties to ascertain clues. The book was written on the cusp of our new age of computer, scientific, and forensic obsessiveness (e.g.,  "CSI: Everywhere" and Patricia Cornwell's series, begun in 1990).

Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset police lives in Bath, is oblivious to the astounding ancient artifacts that abound in his area, blusters his way to one of the highest solution rates among the detectives, and for better or worse goes his own way. Eventually, of course, his occupational path must get worse.

For one thing, hanging over his head is a charge of intimidating a confession out of a suspect in London. While the charge is being investigated, he has been moved to the hinterlands, which is how he views Bath. Then he is assigned up-and-comer John Wigfull as his partner. John is full of something, for sure. He is younger, modern, and while not overly dismissive of Diamond's methods, he's obviously patronizing. There's a lot of eyebrow lifting on both Wigfull and Diamond's parts.

When the body of a woman is found in a lake, Diamond is off and running. He crows when the computers cannot collate data fast enough. (It's entered manually, Wigfull whines.) Cherchez la femme and Diamond has found two among the cast. Gerry Snoo, ex-actress, plays the body and the prime suspects are Professor Greg Jackman, her husband, and Dana Didrikson, the mother of a boy the professor rescues. Hints of love triangles, wanton seduction, and celebrity loopiness spice the story.

It's refreshing to meet a protagonist who does not have a cardinal defect (alcoholism, depression, Alzheimer's) but is merely vain. Pride and prejudice goeth before the fall in Jane Austen country. And, yes, there is a Jane Austen subplot. And, no, there are no zombies. Diamond is no matinee idol either. Why should a reader like him? He's fabulously seat-of-the-pants smart about psychology and has a well-earned instinct for piecing together a tale of criminal mischief.

The only part that bugged me -- because, truly, I found the writing superior, the characterizations zippy and captivating, and the Jane Austen subplot genius -- was the much-too-expeditious capitulation of one of the characters when accused of criminal monkey business towards the end of the book. Shades of Perry Mason!

Lovesey just released his 13th Diamond novel, "The Tooth Tattoo"!

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