WOBBLE TO DEATH by Peter Lovesey
“His rivals regarded him with the look of bemused indifference that cows give to passing trains.”
Spectator sports, class distinctions and the mores of Victorian society are all artfully combined with a clever whodunit in this prize-winning debut novel by Peter Lovesey, which was greeted by no less an authority on historical crime fiction than John Dickson Carr as a “first-rate story of sustained thrill”. First published over 40 years ago, this mystery with a smattering of social satire thrown in still holds up extremely well.
The setting is the Agricultural Hall in London in November 1879 and all the action is set during a six-day endurance test, or ‘wobble’, at the end of which will be crowned the ‘Champion pedestrian of the World’. The competitors (inevitably for the period they are all men), with only occasional breaks, will have to walk hundreds of miles round the less than salubrious indoor track until by the end of the sixth day the person who has walked the farthest (and is still standing) will win a prize of £500. Appropriately enough perhaps, and typical of this author’s sly cunning, the book itself grew out of a contest initiated by Macimillan with a prize of £1,000. Lovesey was the winner of the contest, selected from around 250 submitted manuscripts, and is still hard at it today (he is currently in the US promoting his latest ‘Peter Diamond’ mystery). This debut also introduced the adventures of Victorian policeman Detective Sergeant Cribb and his sidekick Constable Thakeray and its success led to a revival in the fortunes of the historical crime novel.
Although there are inevitably some similarities with Horace McCoy’s depression-era classic They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, there is nothing as grimly deterministic in its social commentary here as we follow the shifting fortunes of the contestants. Though there are 16 competitors to begin with, right from the start all eyes are on the rivalry between reigning champion Captain Erskine Chadwick, who from his side bets stands to win a whopping £11,000, and the young pretender Charles Durrell. Their contest takes place in a privileged space on the internal track reserved for gentlemen, while on the outer track run all the others from the lower social classes – the most eccentric of which is the completely inexperienced Francis Mostyn whose motives for participating are a mystery. At the end of each day we are given a summary of everyone’s progress with a table of the miles and laps run. Lovesey spends quite a lot of time setting up the basic situation and all the characters so that sergeant Cribb only makes his appearance a third of the way in when Durrell dies, apparently of tetanus. He is a serious and intelligent man, not much interested in running as a sport and who proves to be a smart judge of character, changing interrogation technique depending on the person in question. Cribb’s deductions are always logical and plausible, though I’m still not entirely convinced about how fairly he solved the case (more about that below)
Although this is a long way away from CSI we are plausibly shown how the police quickly determine that the death was in fact caused in strychnine poisoning. There is a rich variety of suspects, from Durrell’s rivals on the track to their helpers on the sidelines, not to mention his lusty wife Cora. She quickly turns on Sam Monk, her husband’s trainer, as he was used to making a tonic with strychnine to help boost his runners – she has also been having an affair with him. But then Monk also does in suspicious circumstances and the whole event comes under even closer scrutiny as the ‘wobble’ in allowed to continue while Cribb investigates, leading to a couple of funny moments in which the burly Thackeray is forced to run alongside the competitors as he tries to get their statements, much to Cribb’s amusement. There is in fact much humour in the book as we follow the rivalries and peculiarities of the runners, the role of the press reporting on the run and the effect this has on the increasingly stressed organisers.
“They was at the Lyceum, watching Irving in some play about Venice.”
This is combined with a mass of fascinating and convincing detail on life in mid-Victorian London which is handled fairly well so we don’t feel that we are having to stop regularly to have some empirical historical research paraded before us before the plot can pick up again – the integration of the various elements is in fact pretty seamless. The conclusion is certainly an ingenious one, though not too complicated (there’s a very clever bit of misdirection regarding Cora’s love life) and I certainly didn’t guess the murderer – but I’m not sure I really could have done either, though this isn’t much of a criticism. What is best about the book is the way that it succeeds in convincingly bringing the customs and manners of the past to life through careful use of detail, both physical and linguistic, but also manages the even harder job of making it seem relevant to the modern-day. With its emphasis on the mob mentality of the spectators baying for blood at this ‘cruelty show’, one is reminded of such popular equivalents as Big Brother and X Factor-style popularity contests / talent shows. In addition the parts of the story dealing with the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the way that money dominates sport usefully reminds us that some aspects of modern living are not o modern after all and provide a fascinating range of alternative perspectives on contemporary themes and attitudes.
In all Lovesey went on to write 8 Cribb novels though in addition, when it was turned into a TV series (ITV, 1979-81) starring the dour Alan Dobie, Lovesey with his wife Jacqueline also wrote all the original scripts for the episodes not based on his novels. ‘Wobble to Death’ was adapted particularly successfully, thanks to strong direction by Gordon Flemying (father of actor Jason Flemying) and a script by the late, great, Alan Plater.
For more information on the author and his books, including his contact details, visit Peter Lovesey’s official website at: http://peterlovesey.com.
For details of the Cribb TV series, visit: www.sergeantcribb.com/