Peter Lovesey is widely regarded around the world as one of the most skilled practitioners of both the historical and the contemporary crime novel. His long list of award-winning novels and short stories, whether set in Victorian or contemporary times, capture their respective periods evocatively through Lovesey’s canny ear for dialogue and seamless interweaving of plot and atmosphere.
His crime writing career began in 1969 when he submitted his novel Wobble to Death to a writing competition. It won, but even more significantly, it introduced to the world Sergeant Cribb and his sidekick Constable Thackeray who went on solving cases for Scotland Yard in eight more novels and in a television series produced by Granada Television. The novels, injected with a touch of humor, are set in a meticulous recreation of Victorian England, and Cribb is neither an eccentric genius like Holmes nor a stereotypically inane policeman like Lestrade, but a hard-working, lucid, Scotland Yard police sergeant from a humble background who believes in spending long hours of hard work to solve a case rather than in relying on guesswork and suspicions.
In 1982 Peter’s historical shipboard mystery The False Inspector Dew won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association for the year’s best crime novel. In 1988 Peter launched a new historical crime series featuring Albert Edward, Prince of Wales-otherwise known as Bertie-as a bumbling sleuth who falls into one adventure after another, all the while charming legions of mystery fans who find these comical crime stories irresistible.
In 1991 Peter shifted gears and began a series of contemporary crime novels featuring the non-conforming Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Bath CID, winning the Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger for two consecutive years, in 1995 for The Summons and in 1996 for Bloodhounds. Last year Peter won the prestigious Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association for a lifetime’s achievements in the field of crime writing.
TSM: Well, Peter, how did you write your first Cribb novel?
PL: For a competition. There was an advert in The Times offering a thousand pounds for a first crime novel. I was a teacher at that time and a thousand pounds was more than my salary, so it was a good prize. I had already written one book, but that was a book about long distance running which came out about two years before, in 1968. We saw this ad and my wife said to me, “Well, you’ve written one book. Couldn’t you do another?” I said, “Well that was about running and this is fiction. I don’t know anything about crime writing.” I’d read the Sherlock Holmes stories and I’d read about one Agatha Christie. Jax said, “Well, I think you ought to try. Couldn’t you use running as a background for a story? That would be a bit different.” She did read them and knew quite a bit about the way detective stories were written at that time. So she encouraged me and I decided to write this one about a Victorian long distance race, the kind that really did happen in the 1880’s, both in London and in New York. It was an original plotline and I had quite a catchy title for it, Wobble to Death, and I think those things together won me the prize. So that was a wonderful start.
TSM: And what is your opinion of Granada’s production of the Cribb series?
PL: I was delighted. I was thrilled with all the care and the detail that went into the production. The scripts were good. They got some lovely writers. For instance, Wobble to Death was written by Alan Plater, one of the leading television writers, and he did a brilliant job, I thought. Alan Dobie, who played Sergeant Cribb, was marvellous casting.
TSM: Why did you stop writing the Cribb novels?
PL: There are two reasons. One: I used up all the store of ideas that I had. You know, I had thought vaguely as I was writing that I had certain things I wanted to cover in the books, but they all got used for television. My method with writing the Sergeant Cribb series books was to start off with an entertainment of some kind as a setting and then to weave a plot around that, so that I had this long distance race, and then I had the boxing for The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, and the music hall (sort of Vaudeville) for Abracadaver, and then I had one about spiritualism. So in each case there was a strong Victorian enthusiasm as the beginning. I thought vaguely that I would like to do one about the zoo-the London Zoo-and that I’d like to do one about a hospital and one about a school, but I used each of those ideas for the television so that, in a way, I was cleaned out by the time the television series had run.
The other thing was that it’s such a powerful medium, television, and Alan Dobie was such a brilliant actor and so completely sort of fulfilled the role of Sergeant Cribb, that when I came to think about writing again, I saw Alan Dobie’s face and I couldn’t get back to the first concept I had of Sergeant Cribb. And it didn’t seem right to start writing a book about the actor Alan Dobie in the role of Cribb. It wasn’t quite the same. It was almost like doing a novelisation rather than an original work and so I thought, well, I’ll try something else.
TSM: Will you ever bring him back?
PL: I don’t think so. I think that they were books that were written at a certain time of my life and it might be a mistake to go back and try to revive something that I was doing when I was in my forties.
TSM: Tell me, when you were growing up did you ever think you’d be a writer?
PL: No, I didn’t. I suppose I had ambitions to be a runner and that was the thing that interested me in the first place. Or a conjurer; I would quite like to do that. But there isn’t much money in running-or there wasn’t at that time-and there wasn’t really a career to be made in conjuring. I suppose I used them in a strange way because it’s a bit like a long distance race when you write a book, and also you’re trying to spring surprises all the time in writing. But no, I had no ambitions in that direction. Later on, when I got to my thirties and began to write, it was almost accidental. It was the lure of money, I think, that got me started on crime writing-for that prize.
TSM: And do you still follow running today?
PL: Oh, yes, I do. I wrote a history of the Amateur Athletic Association for them when their centenary came round and I still write occasional articles for track and field magazines.
TSM: Do you find that being a writer forces you to lead a more reclusive life or do you consider it an advantage to have so much time on your hands?
PL: It’s an odd life. When I started I was doing a teaching job and writing in the evenings and on weekends. It was only 25 years ago, in 1975, that I decided to make it my career. So I resigned then and for a time it was strange to spend so much time alone instead of being with a lot of people, either in front of a class or with teaching colleagues. I then had to make efforts to get out and meet people and join things and so on, and make friends-probably more than I had done when my work obliged me to get out and meet people. I think it is important to stay in contact because you do spend a lot of time alone. Particularly me-I’m a slow writer. I know people who can manage to do perhaps two or three hours writing in the day and the rest of the time is their own. I’m so slow at it that I tend to spend . . . I start work about eight and I’ll probably still be writing at five in evening, so it is a slow process.
TSM: Did your experience as a teacher help you with writing?
PL: I suppose with the language a bit. I was teaching literature and so the reading I had to do-the analysis of books and the work of other writers-was helpful, I’m sure. I think maybe explaining things to classes in the kind of language that they could follow was a helpful exercise as well . . . That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about it much before, but I think there were some things, certainly, that were helpful to me.
TSM: How about dealing with dishonest students?
PL: Oh, well yes, I don’t think I ever had to do any detective work in my teaching days! Most of the kids I met were truthful enough and honest enough and I had a lot of fun at it. I really did.
TSM: Besides writing, what are some of your other pursuits or hobbies?
PL: I don’t have time for too many. I still keep up my interest, as you know, in sports and I have quite a number of friends in the sports world. I like walking and visiting teashops. I’m very good at drinking tea and sitting in teashops! Whenever I find a town, first of all it’s a bookstore-a second-hand bookstore-and then it’s the teashop, and I know them in most towns!
TSM: So are you in walking distance, or do you have to drive down?
PL: Well, here I’m within walking distance to Chichester which is a good town with plenty of those kinds of shops.
TSM: How do you think up the plots for your stories or books? Do you just go to the typewriter and let the words flow or, let’s say, you are sitting in a teashop and then a plot clicks in your head?
PL: The initial idea can come from anywhere. It might be something I’ve heard in a teashop. It might be something I’ve read. It might be two things that coalesce. But then I begin to sort of think it through and look at it from many points of view. For about six weeks before I write a word, I’ll be working out plotlines and writing things down on bits of paper and throwing them away and trying to devise a plot that I think will work to my satisfaction before I start Chapter One. So the answer to that question, really, is that, yes, I’m a plotter. I’m not one of those who likes to have the excitement of not knowing what’s coming from day to day. I’d rather have worked out the essentials of the plot well ahead of time and put in my surprises at that stage. I may think of one or two better things as I’m going along, but essentially all the work is done before I begin to write the first chapter. And then I can enjoy the process of writing even more. I’m not worrying about what’s going to happen or where things are or how things will work out. I know all that. I can just sort of enjoy finding the right words.
TSM: So you never get into a situation where a character is left saying ‘I don’t want to be the murderer’?
PL: No. Not much. Perhaps once or twice in my career it’s happened. It happened towards the end of that book, The Last Detective, where, I think I told you, Diamond loses his job. I had thought he would carry on and investigate the plot to the end, but there came a scene with the Assistant Chief Constable when Diamond was in trouble, and I thought when I got there, well, if he has any integrity he’s not going to take this telling off. He’s going to march out and throw in the job and resign. And that’s what he did. That happened towards the end of the book. It wasn’t planned, but it seemed right when I got there. It seemed the right thing to do. So in that way he took over a little bit and set me some real problems after that!
TSM: I know that you have a lot of admiration for the works of John Dickson Carr.
PL: Oh, yes. I think he was-a long time before I even began-doing the kinds of things I enjoy doing. He was writing books set in the past, and he really pioneered the historical crime novel that has become so popular now. He was clever enough to cover many different periods. He wrote about the eighteenth century brilliantly, and the nineteenth and earlier. As well as that, he devised these wonderful locked room murders which were so popular at the time-in the 1920’s and 30’s-and did them brilliantly. So he was a kind of icon, I suppose, of the past-an American who had worked quite a lot of the time in England, a member of the Detection Club over here that I was invited to join. So certainly, I suppose, if there was anybody I admired, it was John Dickson Carr. I came ultimately to try and write a book that was a kind of tribute to him, a “locked room puzzle” in a book called Bloodhounds, which is one of the Diamond series. So, absolutely, a writer I admire enormously.
TSM: Didn’t Dickson Carr review a few of your books?
PL: Yes, he did. He used to review at Ellery Queen’s [Mystery] Magazine and he-yes-he reviewed about the first three or four of them, and said very encouraging things about them. I never met him, unfortunately. The first time I came to America was about 1977 or ’78 I think, for an international crime writers’ conference and, I don’t know, I think he may have been dead by then. I don’t remember.
TSM: Yes I think he died in ’77 or ’76.
PL: Of course Douglas Greene has written a wonderful biography of John Dickson Carr which I found fascinating.
TSM: And do you enjoy his Gideon Fell books?
PL: Yes. Oh, yes, very much. All of them, really. I suppose he wrote a few duds as we all do, but really he was a class act, wasn’t he?
TSM: He was an excellent writer. I enjoyed Captain Cut-Throat and Fire, Burn. Now, you grew up during the Second World War and I know that had an effect on Rough Cider. Did it have an effect on any of your other works?
PL: Thinking back, I think it did, on a book called On the Edge which was set just after the War with echoes of the War. It was about two women who had served in the forces in the War as plotters-in other words, those women who had a large map in front of them and would push little models of aircraft or ships around the map, and help to identify where the enemy were and our ships were and so on. But after that sort of glamorous work-meeting dashing young pilots who were active in the War and so on-they came out in 1946 and they’d lost their jobs and had to go back to being housewives and found it rather dreary. They meet by chance after the War and they are both very disillusioned and each of them, for different reasons, decides to murder her husband. So that one, that drew on my memories of that period during the War and just after it.
TSM: What are your memories of that time?
PL: There was one event during the War, in 1944, when my own house was hit by a bomb-by one of those V1’s, known as the flying bomb, the pilotless planes that came over London. I was at school. It was my first day back at school and my mother was out shopping and my two brothers were in the house. To their great good fortune they had got under a table, which was itself a shelter, an iron table, and the whole house fell down on top of them. They were preserved under the table and crawled out of the rubble. So I can remember that quite vividly–being brought back from school by a neighbour and seeing bodies in the garden covered by sheets and thinking these were my brothers and my mother.
TSM: That must have been terrifying.
PL: But then my mother came running up the road and my two brothers crawled out of this great heap of debris and were still alive. So, that, more than anything, is my most vivid memory and then, after that, being evacuated, being moved out to the country and living in a strange place on a farm down in Cornwall. All that made a big impression, too. But, as I say, I wrote about that time in Rough Cider. I don’t think I use the period very much in other books.
TSM: I read a Christmas story of yours set during the War that had a nice twist to it.
PL: Oh yes. That’s right. That was a wartime one. Quite right. About the horrible father.
TSM: What are you working on now, Peter?
PL: At the moment I’m working on the seventh book in the Peter Diamond series and enjoying that. I suppose I’m about halfway through. I’m not quite sure what the title will be, and I never give away the plot in advance! So I can’t say too much about it.
TSM: And what’s coming out?
PL: Oh, well on May 5th, 2000, The Reaper will be published-that I mentioned to you about this rector, this vicar, who goes wrong and kills the bishop-and The Vault has just been published in paperback. That was last year’s Peter Diamond book. And some of my earlier books. The Sergeant Cribb series are being republished here by Allison & Busby, so Wobble to Death and The Detective Wore Silk Drawers and Abracadaver-the first three-have so far gone into print here. I hope and believe the rest will follow.
TSM: Of the many awards which you have won, which one would you say has the most special meaning to you?
PL: Well, I think that this one that I’m to get on May 5th, the Diamond Dagger, which is really for a career of writing. The Cartier Diamond Dagger. And I’m proud, really, to have made a career of this for 25 years and very pleased that the Crime Writers Association should have recognized me in this way and allowed me to follow such great names as have won the award before.
TSM: What writers have influenced your work, really? Were you a fan of the Holmes stories?
PL: Yes, I was. I certainly think that Conan Doyle must have influenced my Victorian stories. In some ways I was trying not to write anything that was a Holmes pastiche-or I’ve tried to do something of my own. His evocation of Victorian scenes is very vivid and sometimes very funny. I don’t think people always give him credit for being so amusing–those scenes where somebody walks into Holmes’ consulting room and is told that he is a Freemason and a this and a that, but apart from that I know nothing whatever about you. I love those stories. So he was certainly a big influence. I think John Dickson Carr must have been a big influence, and I’m not sure after that of the more contemporary writers. I don’t know …
TSM: Dickens, Collins …?
PL: Hardy. I devoured Thomas Hardy’s books when I was younger. No, not so much Dickens. I mean I loved Bleak House and one or two but I can’t say that I’ve read Dickens very widely.
TSM: A great favourite of mine is Wilkie Collins.
PL: Oh, yes. The Moonstone and The Woman in White. Superb. He even wrote a book about running that not many people know about called Man and Wife which is a very rare one. I was rather pleased to find it.
TSM: His short stories are brilliant. He is in many ways a most underrated writer.
PL: Yes, he is. Absolutely.
TSM: What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?
PL: Oh, I don’t know! I don’t like giving advice, really, Andrew. I think if they’re going to be writers and got it in them, they’ll go ahead against all the difficulties. I think it is a case of something that you are driven to write, really. I wasn’t like that myself at the beginning, but I am now, and I’ve grown into that way of life. But the people who come to you and say, you know, I think I might be able to write a book-generally they should have written the book already before they say that to you, I think. It’s up to them to get on and make a start at it.
TSM: And when your parents heard that you were writing, what did they think about that?
PL: My parents, I think, were rather concerned, particularly when I decided to give up my teaching job and go full-time. My father worked in a bank, which was a very safe job at the time he was doing it, and would probably have liked me to carry on in the teaching world, but I’m glad I got out and happy that I did this.
TSM: Well, the last question is, do you find that writing helps you escape from life? I mean, is that part of the joy you have in writing? That you can solve all the problems with your pen or your typewriter?
PL: That’s an interesting one! I suppose you’re in control and there’s some satisfaction in that, bringing it all to a conclusion. That’s one of the compulsions on us as crime writers or mystery writers, that the reader expects you to explain everything and reach a satisfying conclusion, whereas in mainstream novels that isn’t always necessary-sometimes you don’t have to answer all the questions and you can leave things open. But we really have to draw all the threads together by the end of the book and when it’s done, it may be a challenge, but that’s rather satisfying. So maybe that’s one of the appeals, yes, of writing, as opposed to real life, which is not quite so satisfactory!
TSM: Well, Peter, it’s been a very, very great pleasure and a lot fun and I’m sure our readers are really going to enjoy this.
PL: Well thank you, Andrew.