RogerBW's Blog

The Secret Hangman, Peter Lovesey 13 September 2015

2007 mystery, the ninth book in Lovesey's Peter Diamond series. A woman is found hanged in a park in Bath; a few days later her partner turns up in the same state. A suicide pact?

Lovesey took a four year break after The House Sitter before returning to Peter Diamond, and the effects seem to have been positive. Where that book was sometimes grinding and overly tired, this one feels reinvigorated. There's even diegetic justification: Diamond, widowed some years ago, starts a new relationship in this book. Both of them have their baggage and things to hide, and it's a good portrait of a relationship between two people reluctant to risk further hurt, though a final revelation doesn't quite ring true. This bleeds into Diamond's relationships with his subordinates; where he might have driven another colleague off his team as he did Julie Hargreaves back in Upon a Dark Night, now he realises he should back off and even apologise.

But while the secondary stories are good ones, they're always subordinate to the main mystery. A women is found hanged in a public park; a man turns up similarly hanged a few days later. It looks like suicide, or murder-suicide, but there are niggling problems with that theory which make things less straightforward, particularly for a stubborn old cop like Diamond who doesn't like being told to wrap things up quickly and neatly – though for quite a while it seems as though that's just what's going to have to happen. Then some old information turns up, and things start to move again.

There are digressions into travelling salesmen, tea dances, ram raids, the Bath Stone mines under Combe Down, and personal fitness training. Some material on abortion is a bit heavy-handedly neutral at times, which I think may be Lovesey trying to avoid being perceived as taking a political view. There are still problems with modernity: surely, in 2007, when you have a prime suspect for something, you check his national insurance and DVLA records so that you already know his address(es) and any car(s) he owns before you go and visit him? Even if Diamond didn't think of that, wouldn't one of his underlings? More seriously, the final leap from "the killer must be a person holding this opinion" to "this specific person, the only one we've met in the book with this opinion, is the killer" is basically ungrounded in evidence, and given the seriousness of the accusation I'd have liked to have seen that conjecture reinforced a bit before it was overtly acted on. (In fact there was rather more plausible evidence pointing at someone else, who was completely ignored.)

The basic problem with a serial killer plot is that it's always going to come down to "a loony did it", an essentially unsatisfying quest for motive: the reader tries to put something together from the available evidence, but eventually it will come down to "because he was mad". That's a weak point here, particularly as the killer's motive (which he/she apparently wanted to make clear by the means of killing) takes the police most of the book to discover.

Even so, this is a distinct improvement on The House Sitter. Followed by Skeleton Hill.

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