Putting a sleuth through his paces

By Clea Simon
September 14, 2009

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Death through the centuries takes center stage in “Skeleton Hill,’’ but it does so with the customary wit and gentle humor that mystery lovers have come to expect from the British master of the genre, Peter Lovesey.

Lovesey’s 10th police procedural mystery featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond opens with carnage in the 17th century. Two historic reenactors are taking a break from the heat of a re-imagined English Civil War battle when they stumble on a human skeleton. Inspired by their setting, they assume it belongs to one of the Cavaliers or Roundheads whose roles they have assumed, but they’re wrong. Soon one of the make-believe soldiers is missing, and not long after, three centuries of mayhem are unearthed in the damp soil of Bath.

Not that such misdeeds are a problem for the portly, opinionated Diamond. Instead, our protagonist is, at first, grateful for an interesting crime. As this outing opens, his own health and fitness are being called into question - not only is he in poor physical shape, he’s fallen behind in the science of crime solving - and he relishes the chance to show his mastery. But before long Diamond, who has grown curmudgeonly as well as stout, hits his limits. The local gentry, joined by his boss, seem quite capable of stonewalling him in a clear case of class discrimination. An interview of a fit local magistrate conducted on a gym treadmill nearly immobilizes him, and the shooting of one of his officers brings danger close to home.

Luckily, the detective superintendent more than resembles a bulldog. Ducking political fallout, he manages to keep control over these seemingly disparate cases. Not only does he more or less get back on his feet physically, he learns a bit about the high-tech developments in his field, and, along the way, ties up not only two murders but a long-ago mystery of a missing racehorse.

Diamond’s appeal lies as much in his personality as in his crime solving. He is a good detective: thorough, painstaking, and observant. By this point he has earned the right to trust his instincts, and the author makes a good political case for why the veteran cop would want to link two seemingly unrelated murders. In addition, Lovesey sets up the snooty Lansdown Society well. Red herring or high-class cabal, this group of powerful preservationists serves as perfect foil for the earthy Diamond. Our hero, who survived the murder of his wife three books before in 2002’s “Diamond Dust,’’ is rediscovering life, and his company is a joy. Paloma Kean is present throughout as his sophisticated and civilizing new love interest And when Diamond is laid up from his unaccustomed exertions, she proves herself a worthy companion to one of crime fiction’s most enduring sleuths.

Clea Simon is the author of five mysteries, most recently “Shades of Grey’’ (Severn House).

By Peter Lovesey
Soho Crime, 336 pp. $24

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