RogerBW's Blog

The Circle, Peter Lovesey 25 April 2015

2005 mystery. A publisher's house is burned down, with him in it. What's the connection with the local circle of unpublished writers?

This book is billed as "An Inspector Hen Mallin Investigation With an Appearance by Peter Diamond", but it's nearly half-way through the book that they show up for the first time. That's a shame, because I enjoyed Mallin in The House Sitter, and the principal viewpoint character here is instead Bob Naylor, a newcomer to the writers' circle; he has most of the first half of the book to himself, and the second half is shared between him and the police.

Mallin is a less distinctive voice now than when she was contrasted against Diamond; it's hard to say in retrospect what her particular methods and approaches are, other than following standard procedures and trying to make sure things don't get overlooked. An ambitious and risky trap late in the book feels quite out of character for her.

There's a slightly wrong note when, speculating on someone who's connected with a "women's refuge", it's suggested that some of the users of the refuge might be troublemakers and criminals – but nobody mentions that the men from whom they might be running are rather more likely to be a problem. In fact it seems nothing like any refuge I've ever heard of; it's much more like a short-term hostel for people with problems, who happen to be women. A bit of a research failure.

There's also one huge breaking of the fourth wall which I found it hard to forgive:

The edges of Hen's mouth twitched into a smile. "As you know, I listen to my Agatha Christie tapes when I get the chance. There are rules to a good whodunnit. Dame Agatha would never introduce the killer this late in the story. So I'm hoping it doesn't turn out to be (X). I want it to be one of the other buggers we've been tracking all the time."

But in spite of that this is a highly enjoyable book; Lovesey's always a competent writer with a slightly mean streak, and his skewering of the pretensions of the members of the circle is splendid. In structure this is obviously a great deal like Bloodhounds, but he manages to avoid repeating the characters from that book; what's more, even with eleven in the circle as well as Bob, he makes them all sufficiently distinctive that it's always easy to keep track of who's who.

There is perhaps a little too much even-handedness in passing out suspicion, but the eventual resolution is a fair one, with enough clues pointing to the guilty party but not so many that it's too easy to be enjoyable. There's a particularly fine example of manipulation via sexual hinting, which I'd like to show to people who think that there's nothing between normal conversation and seduction. The ending did strike me as somewhat abrupt, but perhaps this is because I'd been enjoying visiting the world and would have liked to have spent more time with these people, even the horrible ones.

This is a very old-fashioned sort of mystery, a cozy dressed in the clothes of a police procedural, but that's what Lovesey does, and I rather like it.

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See also:
The House Sitter, Peter Lovesey

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