Saturday, September 5, 2015

Down Among the Dead Men

Sometimes I wonder what it is about crime fiction that I find so enjoyable.  Certainly the escape factor - you can't fret about section allocation or committee staffing when murder is at hand!  And my focus on non-US, non-contemporary means that whatever I read gets me out of myself.

But a key piece for me is character development.  If you've spent any time with Crime Pays, you'll know that I particularly enjoy a well-developed character.  Whether funny - a la Bryant and May - or wicked smaht like Flavia de Luce or Quirke, or conflicted like Martin Limon's MPs or any le Carre character, the more complex Our Hero is, the better the story is.

This is why I was underwhelmed with the first Peter Diamond investigation I read.  Just didn't get it about this vaguely grumpy, slightly cynical cop.  Not that I mind grumpy or cynical, but there didn't seem to be a strong reason for him to be so.  So when a new book by Peter Lovesey showed up in my monthly Soho shipment - now several months ago, I am sadly behind - I did not jump on it.  The Soho club readings have been uneven, and I added this to the pile.

Then I read a capsule review in the always-helpful Crime column in the New York Times Book Review.  Marilyn Stasio is a good indicator, and I think the word stylish may even have been used.  I wouldn't go that far, but it intrigued me enough to pick up Down Among the Dead Men (Soho Press, 2015) and see what I'd missed.

Plenty!  I still think Our Hero Peter Diamond is not a particularly complex character.   He falls into the DCI Banks model of good cop/irrascible man, a model which you see just a little too often and which seems to be deployed as a form of complexity.  I'm still not sure why he is a bit cynical or slightly lazy.  But in this story, Diamond and his commanding officer, Georgina Dallymore, are sent off to Sussex to investigate a possible case of internal misconduct.  The misconduct piece almost becomes secondary to the clever characterization of Georgina, who is by turns overconfident, insecure, misguided, shrewd, and ultimately supportive of Diamond's approach.

  "Satisfied, she rubbed her hands.  She almost clapped.  'We're a team that gets things done, Peter.  Two intereviews already, Henrietta Mallin and her brother, and both went rather well, with me setting the agenda, so to speak, and you following up on the detail.  If people see us as Miss Nice and Mr. Nasty, so be it.  That's a well-tried method of interrogation.'
  She meant good cop bad cop.  Miss Nice and Mr. Nasty was another nugget to tuck away."  (147-8)

Our Hero finds himself a bit conflicted with respect to his deeply annoying but ultimately fairly effective boss.

  "'I don't know how you stand it, Peter.  I lost my cool with her, as you saw.'
  'Practice.  Georgina and I understand each other.  In fact, I've got to know her a lot better since we came on this trip.  I dicsovered she has a soft underbelly.'
  The crossed swords of the Victory Arch in Baghdad were no higher than Hen's eyebrows.  'The mind boggles.'"  (194)

Lovesey has fun drawing Georgina as a foil to Diamond but doesn't make her a complete joke.  And Diamond himself is funnier than many Brit cops, not veering too far into the sardonic.

The internal affairs case turns out to be part of something larger and more sinister (no surprise there, else where would be the story?) and there are several plot lines that actually all pull together more or less in an ending that does not strain credulity (that is a compliment).  Art, plants, and diving - it is something of a feat to tie those up!  More interesting characters pop up along the way.  There is a girls school with some well-drawn students and are-they-or-aren't-they evil teachers, some artists who are more than they appear, parents with pasts, and a quite excellent vignette in a trailer with the parents of a missing girl.

  "Diamond had been watching Barry Mallin for any sign of what was really going on in his head.  Here was a controlling man who had raised a daughter who haad rebelled, sold just about everyting he owned to rescure her and pull her back into line.  Now he was faced with another huge family crisis.  How had he dealt with it.  Was he responsible for hte disappearance of Joss?"  (138)

I like how Lovesey gets a little bit into the head of the unpleasant Mallin and there is more of this.

Don't mistake any of this for the witty and kooky folks you might find in a Dr. Siri mystery, or the deeply conflictedly convoluted characters of The Secret Agent.  But Lovesey does find the balance, and a touch of humor never hurts.  You might just go pick and give ol' Diamond another try.

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