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Tuesday 1 November 2016

Peter Lovsey

Carol Westron talks to Peter Lovesey

 Peter Lovesey has won so many awards it would take the whole page to list them. From 1970 when he won the Macmillan/Panther First Crime Novel Prize for Wobble to Death, the awards have continued to pour in. These are just a few of them:
the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellery Queen Readers’ Award and I think he must possess enough CWA daggers to furnish a good-size armoury. If I have counted correctly I think it comes to numerous CWA Awards, plus four Silver Daggers, one Gold Dagger and the Cartier Diamond Dagger for
Lifetime Achievement.
Peter has also received Lifetime Achievement Awards from Malice Domestic and The Strand Critics. He has been awarded the Vikelas Plaque from the International Society of Olympic Historians and the Swedish Academy of Detection made him a Grandmaster.
The Sergeant Cribb television series, based on Peter’s books and scripts, was immensely successful and is still remembered and spoken of with affection. His current series detective, Peter Diamond, is going strong.
He was the Chairman of the Crime Writers Association from 1991-92.
Peter lives in the south of England, not far from me, and I have met him many times. He is one of the kindest, most generous and modest men it has been my good fortune to meet and I and my fellow Deadly Dames were delighted when he agreed to be our guest Chevalier at a local Literary Festival three years ago.

Carol: Your crime fiction career started when you won a competition with the Sergeant Cribb novel Wobble to Death, which was published in 1970 but, before this, you had published two non-fiction books, The Kings of Distance (1968) and The Guide to British Track and Field Literature, 1275-1968. Did you already have it in your mind that you wanted to write crime fiction or was winning the competition a turning point from the direction your writing career might otherwise have taken?
Peter: My interest in athletics started at an early age when I was taken to see the 1948 Olympics in London. Iwould have loved to have been a runner myself and I tried, but I was hopeless at it. Fortunately I could write a bit, and I channelled my enthusiasm for the sport into writing about it, but I could never have made sports writing my career. When the crime novel competition was announced, the prize was £1000 – or slightly more than I could earn in a year in my job as a teacher – so after some prompting from my wife Jax I put together a story that used running – a Victorian six-day race known as a Wobble – as the background for a plot. It was different, had a catchy title and won the prize.

Carol: The Sergeant Cribb novels were immensely successful and allowed you to leave teaching and become a full-time writer by 1975. Your knowledge of Victorian sporting pursuits was clearly very valuable when writing the Cribb books, but how hard did you find it to research all the Victorian social, political and scientific information you needed to make your novels so authentic?
Peter: The research has never been anything but fun. Of course you couldn’t Google anything in 1970, so it was done mainly from books and old newspapers. I was a regular in the British Newspaper Library at Colindale. I kept a card index. And I have always enjoyed digging out treasures from second-hand bookshops. In those days you could find long-neglected Victorian books on obscure subjects. Much of my police procedural stuff came from The Police Code by Sir Howard Vincent, who was Director of Criminal Investigations at Scotland Yard. It contained such gems as: ‘It is highly undesirable for detectives to proclaim their official character to strangers by walking in step with each other, and in a drilled style, or by wearing very striking clothing, or police regulation boots, or by openly recognising constables in uniform or saluting superior officers.’ ’ Over the years I’ve collectedand recycled little-known stories, such as Jane Austen’s aunt being caught shoplifting in Bath, or Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein in a first-floor lodging a few yards from the front of Bath Abbey.

Carol:   I remember when Waxwork, the first Sergeant Cribb episode to be televised, appeared in 1979. Did you and Jax sit down and watch it with your family? What did it feel like to watch the characters and story on screen and to know that thousands of other people were watching it as well?
Peter: June Wyndham-Davies, the Granada TV producer, was good enough to involve me from the beginning, so we got to see the filming in the studio and on location. One scene was filmed at night in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds and I still have publicity pictures of Jax and me posing for a publicity shot with the murderer John Christie in the mock-up of his kitchen in 10, Rillington Place. I believe we were invited to a preview of Waxwork in London, so by the time it was broadcast we knew they’d done it well. As you suggest, it was all highly exciting.

Carol: I understand that when all the Sergeant Cribb books had been ramatized more stories were required for broadcasting and you and Jax worked flat out to provide them. After the end of the second series you have never returned to Cribb. Have you ever considered writing another book set in Victorian times or is that period done and dusted as far as you’re concerned?
Peter: The series was more successful than any of us had dared hope. It went out on Sunday nights in prime time and peaked at 12 million. It outsold Coronation Street in 1980 and was bought by more than forty services across the world. In America it was chosen to launch the PBS series called ‘Mystery!’ Alan Dobie and William Symons were nominated for the Emmy. Two Prime Ministers, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, mentioned it as favourite viewing. So when a second series was mooted with us, and needed in about eight months, Jax and I divided the work on six more scripts, using plot ideas I was saving for future books. At the end of it the cupboard was bare and when I thought about writing more books I could only see them being like ‘novelisations’ of TV, which is such a powerful medium that the actors had replaced my mental images of the characters. So I wrote some one-off books, just to see if I could entertain readers with other ‘period’ stories. Pretty soon The False Inspector Dew won the Gold Dagger and Rough Cider was shortlisted for an Edgar, so I felt confident about leaving Cribb behind. Apart from the occasional short story, I haven’t returned to him. He was the work of a younger writer.

Carol: I usually have reservations about using real people with detectives investigating fictional crimes, but I love the Bertie, Prince of Wales, books. I think that the humorous heart of those books lies in the First Person narrative. Did you have as much fun writing them as they are to read?
Peter: Yes, it was sheer indulgence. The first of these, Bertie and the Tinman, was described in the Daily Express as ‘Dick Francis by Gaslight’. True, it started out as my attempt to write a Victorian suspense novel with a horse-racing theme. I soon discovered that the leading jockey of the time, Fred Archer, died in mysterious circumstances. This gifted me a plot I couldn’t resist and having once decided to use a real person in Archer, I learned that he was the royal jockey and his main patron was Bertie. From there it was a short step to employing the Prince as a far-from-competent detective and giving him a voice as the narrator. Dick Francis by gaslight it was not. You had to read between the lines to understand what was going on and I liked using this extra layer of deviousness. I took Bertie to Paris with Sara Bernhardt in Bertie and the Crime of Passion. The third book, Bertie and the Seven Bodies, was my nod to Agatha Christie in the year of her centenary.

Carol: I read on your website that, after your house was bombed during the war, the only two books you had to read were The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall and Alias the Saint, Has the memory of those late-Victorian and Edwardian trials influenced some of your plots, especially in the stand-alone books, such as The False Inspector Dew?
Peter: Imagine how a ten-year-old had his formative years enriched by the biography of the celebrated defence lawyer involved in the most sensational trials of his time. I read that book several times over. Finally, reluctantly, I turned to the other book we had in the house, thinking Saint Alias must be a religious figure, and discovered it was crime fiction by a writer called Leslie Charteris. The fates were steering me inexorably towards crime writing, though I didn’t realise it at the time. When I wrote Waxwork, I had the trials of the various Victorian women poisoners in mind; and, as you suggest, The False Inspector Dew was based on the Dr Crippen case. For The Reaper, I had Dr Shipman in mind as a figure so trusted in the community that even after his conviction for multiple murders many said what a fine man he was..

Carol: The Peter Diamond series goes from strength to strength and, in my opinion, Diamond himself has grown stronger and more self-controlled with all the challenges you’ve thrown at him over the years. When you wrote The Last Detective, did you plan it as the first of a long series?
Peter: No, it was only intended as a one-off. After almost twenty years I was plucking up the courage to write a story in a contemporary setting. If it bombed I would go back to writing period novels. In the last chapters I had Diamond resigning from the police, so that drew a line under his career. But to my surprise the book had excellent reviews and won the Anthony for best novel at the Toronto Bouchercon – which, to my shame, I didn’t attend. The incentive to write more about him couldn’t have been stronger, but I had to find a plausible way of getting him back into the police and it took me two books to do it. In The Summons, Bath Police needed him back and sent a car to London, where he was working as a trolley-man in Sainsbury’s.

Carol: I’d love to see the Peter Diamond books as a television series. Is there any chance of that happening?
Peter: The series has been optioned several times and is currently with ITV, but I learned long ago not to get excited until the filming is under way. Carl Foreman, of High Noon fame, wanted to film Wobble to Death and optioned it for several years; and Peter Falk actually bought the rights of The False Inspector Dew. I met them both several times and they were serious enough to buoy me up with the prospect of seeing the books on screen. The odds are heavily stacked against any film or TV series being made.

Carol: One thing I envy you is meeting so many of the great names of past crime fiction such as John Dickson Carr, Edmund Crispin, HRF Keating and Leslie Charteris. Have you any reminiscences of these writers that you can share?
Peter: Although I enjoy John Dickson Carr’s writing I didn’t ever meet him. He reviewed several of my early books in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. My only encounter with Edmund Crispin was at the Detection Club in the 1970s and he’d had a few drinks and was dismissive about his other, more lucrative creative outlet of composing film music. He’d written for several of the ‘Carry On’ films and compared the travails of writing a book to earning big payouts for ‘titty-bum, titty-bum music.’ Harry Keating will still be remembered by many of us older writers as the most generous of reviewers. My favourite memory of Harry was in the swimming pool at one of the CWA conferences managing a stately breaststroke without getting his magnificent beard wet. I met Leslie Charteris when I was chair of the CWA and had the honour of presenting him with the Diamond Dagger. He was in the last months of his life, but rose to the occasion and made an entertaining and graceful speech without notes. He also held a press conference and wittily dealt with questions about his alleged affairs with Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich (‘It was a long time ago. We played some tennis, I remember’).

Carol: I see that Ann Cleeves  has written a short story, Dreaming of Rain and Peter Lovesey, in which an ex-pat wife is driven to desperate measures when her husband threatens to thwart her chance to meet her favourite author. After years of putting your characters into criminal situations, what does it feel like to be cast as the catalyst for a fictional crime of passion?
Peter: This is news to me. I suspect Ann’s story may be one of  a collection called Motives for Murder written by members of the Detection Club as an eightieth birthday present for me. The book is not a total surprise because I was asked to contribute some of my memories as a tailpiece, but I have no idea what everyone else has written. I look forward with much pleasure and some trepidation to finding out at the annual dinner at the Dorchester in
Peter has written
36 Fiction novels, 5 Short Story Collections, 3 Edited Anthologies and 4 Non-fiction books on Athletics.
Visit his web site to see the complete list.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014, and The Fragility of Poppies was published .May 2016.

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