The Secret Hangman
by Peter Lovesey
Published by Soho Crime
316 pages, 2007
At the End of His Rope
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
At a time when British crime fiction seems tipped toward the noir edge of things, it is a treat to come across a classic puzzle story. Such is the reward in store for readers who delve into the ninth entry in the Inspector Peter Diamond series, The Secret Hangman.
Author Peter Lovesey starts his tale with a pair of circumstances guaranteed to drive the overweight, middle-aged and occasionally imperious Diamond to distraction: he has received a crush letter from a secret admirer who has apparently been following his career for a couple of years. Still grief-stricken over the murder (in Diamond Dust, 2002) of his beloved wife, Steph, Diamond is quite comfortable with his solitary life and suspects that the letter is, in fact, a gag perpetrated by his co-workers bent on knocking him off his stride.
Only slightly more annoying is a missing-persons case handed to him by his immediate superior, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallimore. A woman with two young children disappeared without a trace only the day before, and Dallimore asks Diamond to personally conduct an investigation. It seems the missing woman, Delia Williamson, is the daughter of a member of Dallimore’s community choir, so the “request” has all the trappings of a command.
Williamson is eventually found -- but, unfortunately, not in the way Diamond or Dallimore had expected: she’s suspended from a children’s swing set in a public park, with a noose tied around her neck. Writes Lovesey:
All the preliminary signs point to a suicide (or, as they frequently say in this book, the woman “topped herself”): a broken fingernail or two, but no signs of a struggle, no indications of sexual assault. The fact that she was found hanging from a swing set crossbar is noted as being a bit off, but is explained away by the armchair speculation that cops are prone to practice. Williamson’s significant other, with whom she and her children had been living, boasts a decent enough alibi that would rule out his involvement in foul play.
And then, soon after, her ex-husband, Danny Geaves, is discovered hanging from a viaduct over the main drag through Bath, England. Was it a murder borne of a long-simmering resentment? Did Geaves kill his ex, then jump to his death in the most public way of self-execution? Those questions are muddied when Diamond’s intrepid young inspector, the fetching former journalist Ingeborg Smith, recalls that these hangings are markedly similar to a pair of unexplained deaths just a couple of years earlier, when Diamond was too desolate over his wife’s demise to be paying sufficient attention. The previous victims, an affluent couple named Twining, could not be more dissimilar from Delia Williamson, a waitress in a local Italian restaurant, and Geaves, a bizarre eccentric with no known current means of support. There may be a serial killer loose. But if there is, how could the fates of these two couples be related?
In the midst of all this carnage, occurring in the quaint English spa city once beloved by the Romans but despised by Jane Austen, Diamond has something more bizarre and unfamiliar to deal with -- his heart has been awakened by a divorcée, Paloma Kean. They meet in a supermarket parking lot after Diamond absentmindedly backs over a sack of Paloma’s groceries. Gracious, attractive and his equal when it comes to love of old cinema, Paloma forces the gruff Diamond to begin sorting out the life remaining in front of him, as well as the one that was criminally taken from his grasp.
It’s a tribute to Lovesey’s enormous skill as a writer that what could have turned into an annoying subplot is handled with such grace, becoming a thread that the reader welcomes even though it tends to divert attention from the mystery at hand. Lovesey, of course, is a modern master. He won the 2000 Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, presented by Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association, and had previously picked up the CWA’s Gold Dagger Award (for The False Inspector Dew in 1982) and back-to-back Silver Daggers for two previous Inspector Diamond outings, The Summons and Bloodhounds in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Lovesey has been steadily crafting Peter Diamond ever since that character’s introduction in 1991’s The Last Detective, an Anthony Award winner. Diamond is far from instinctive in his detecting -- but he is dogged and methodical, mentoring his junior staff and occasionally berating both underlings and superiors. He’s one of the most appealing series players currently featured in British crime fiction.
The Secret Hangman, while appearing on the surface to be a serial-killer novel, is actually a throwback to the classic English whodunit, dressed up for the modern age. “Cozy” it is not; it’s dark and mercifully free of scientific space-filling, despite the obvious pull to “CSI it up,” as less confident authors are being compelled to do.
Lovesey is an old pro; so is Diamond. It’s a pleasure to recommend that you spend time with both. | September 2007