RogerBW's Blog

A Case of Spirits, Peter Lovesey 26 November 2016

1975 historical detective fiction; sixth of Lovesey's novels of Sergeant Cribb, policeman in Victorian London. Two thefts during séances conducted by the latest fashionable medium attract the attention of the police, but when the next séance ends in a death, mere spiritualism is clearly not the only deception going on.

This is spiritualism in the tradition of the Fox Sisters, with none of the connections to the reforming movements that were historically its only redeeming feature. Here, it's a combination of fashionable party entertainment and, for some, serious research into questions of life after death on which conventional religion seemed to be failing to make much progress.

As one expects from Lovesey, everyone is at least mildly unlikeable except for the detective. They ignore their wives in favour of their collections of nude paintings; they entertain strange men while their husbands are occupied; and of course some of them murder. The situation is carefully set up so that pretty much any of the suspects could have done the deed, though the whole business did seem rather fragile and dependent on chance, and I'm not at all convinced by the murder method.

But this is more of a character study than a puzzle story, especially if you're already familiar with the tricks of the medium rather than coming to them afresh. (Well, I suppose in 1975 those tricks weren't universal knowledge.) There's little sense of suspense, and while one supposes that murderers have to be caught it sometimes feels as though there's no particular virtue in doing so.

I still find it odd how a small comment can break suspension of disbelief – as I noticed before with London Falling. In this case it was the instruction to "cut along to Sloane Square and take the Metropolitan line to Praed Street". Fine, except that: it was the Metropolitan Railway, not the Metropolitan Line, which name was given in 1933; and there was never a station at Praed Street as distinct from Paddington, though some years later there were briefly plans to build one. Apart from that… the thing is, it's all unnecessary! All the character had to say was something like "go to X's house on Praed Street, and take the Underground Railway so that you can warm up a little". I can't help feeling that Lovesey is trying too hard to show off his research.

Cribb mostly manages to be likeable, even if his relations with his boss Inspector Jowett prefigure those of Peter Diamond with ACC Georgina Dallymore, and there's a reasonable leavening of humour throughout the business. I'm not immediately inspired to read more in the series, but the book does its job and leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

I read this for Past Offences' 1975 month. Followed by Swing, Swing Together.

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See also:
London Falling, Paul Cornell

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