Peter Lovesey’s new book, The Tooth Tattoo, published in 2013, is the latest in the highly successful series featuring Peter Diamond, the head of CID in Bath, England. In this mystery, he is visiting Vienna, paying homage to a favourite film, The Third Man, when the body of a young Japanese woman is found. Returning home, he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation when another Japanese woman is dragged out of a canal. The only clue is a musical note tattooed on one of her teeth. This strange and tantalising piece of evidence leads Diamond to a string quartet whose members, an oddly assorted bunch, might just have something to hide. What follows is a highly inventive puzzle, in the classic vein yet unorthodox and impossible to predict. It’s also pleasingly complicated by Diamond’s hapless attempts to understand the world of classical music and the lifestyles of classical musicians.
M.E. This new book of yours is quite a departure, isn’t it? What was the inspiration for a mystery featuring classical musicians?
P.L. I saw a newspaper article about a famous string quartet and the tensions between them that made touring a pain. What a disturbing idea, that a group of artists capable of transporting an audience to a state of ecstasy can still be flawed human beings. I pushed the envelope a little, that’s all.
M.E. Are you a music buff, then?
P.L. More than when I started the book. This is one of the side benefits of writing – that you explore areas you knew little about and come to appreciate and understand them. Like anyone else, I am moved by music and marvel at its mysterious power, but I’m still some way short of being a music buff.
M.E. What form did the research take?
P.L. Going to concerts, downloading quartets – they’re ideal for watching and listening to on the computer – and above all reading accounts of great ensembles like the Amadeus and the Budapest and how these talented people handled the pressures, not just of making music, but coping with each other.
M.E. And is it fair to guess that, like Peter Diamond, you’re a fan of The Third Man?
P.L. How did you guess? I even had a disc of the zither music.
M.E. The Tooth Tattoo is a whodunit, with a limited range of murder suspects. You’re clearly very fond of that kind of story. What’s the appeal?
P.L. Oh, it’s never been bettered as a structure for a mystery. That’s why it’s lasted so long. Almost every crime story works towards a final unravelling and the whodunit makes the process an art form. The closed circle of suspects and the possibilities of misdirection and surprise are a joy to me. Here’s a thought: the whodunit is the literary equivalent of the string quartet, with its tight form and infinite variation.
M.E. Peter Diamond is, once again, the central figure in the story. When he first appeared, in The Last Detective, am I right in thinking you didn’t anticipate he’d turn into a series character?
P.L. Not at all. It would be an odd title for the first in a series, wouldn’t it? Towards the end of the book, Diamond lost his cool, as he often does, and resigned from the police, so I didn’t expect to write another. But the book had some success and won the Anthony and I reconsidered. The second, Diamond Solitaire, had him working alone, but I couldn’t realistically continue like that, so the next was called The Summons, and I contrived a plot in which the police needed him to reinvestigate an old case and summoned him back to Bath police station. He’s headed ten more investigations since.
M.E. Diamond’s relationship with Paloma runs into trouble in the story. The pairing has always intrigued me, because their relationship got off to an extraordinary start in The Secret Hangman. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here…
P.L. At your peril!
M.E. I was about to say, did this pose difficult challenges for you, in turning Paloma into a recurrent character?
P.L. For me, not really. For Diamond, there are professional issues, but he’s the bull-headed character who won’t allow anything to stand in his way. Heaven help the high-up who tries to tell him Paloma is an unsuitable choice of lover. She can never replace his wife Steph, who was murdered at the start of an earlier book. They live separately and sometimes sleep together and she’s a bright, successful lady who often supplies a crucial piece of information.
M.E. Did you hear from readers after Steph was murdered?
PL. And how! Each time I give a talk someone stands up and says, ‘How could you do that?’ In their eyes I’m a wife-murderer. I have to explain that the series was in danger of becoming too cozy and predictable. Diamond needed a life-changing shock and got one.
M.E. Speaking of shocks, one of the fascinations of The Tooth Tattoo is that the reader is repeatedly caught unawares, and is never really sure where the storyline will finish up.
PL. You think I wasn’t sure myself where it was going?
M.E. Come on, everyone knows you’re a careful plotter. Did you find the plotting of this book trickier than usual? Or did you come up with a central idea, such as the motive for the crimes, and take it from there?
P.L. The process was different this time. You’re right about that. This is going to sound pretentious, but I wanted the events to fit the dynamics of four musicians performing at the highest level. One is a cellist who could have been a soloist, another a product of the Soviet system and a chess-player, another a mostly silent autistic violinist who finds expression through music and the fourth is a journeyman player brought into the group and nervous of keeping up. The plot had to be written so that the reader could identify with each of them, yet accept that they were suspects in a murder.
M.E. Another contemporary cop you’ve written about in recent times is a woman, Hen Mallin. Any plans to bring her back in the foreseeable future?
P.L. Don’t hold me to this, but I’m currently thinking Hen will be in the next book.
M.E. You started out as a crime writer with a successful Victorian series that made it into TV, featuring Sergeant Cribb. How did you feel about the televised version?
P.L. Thrilled, of course, to make it onto the small screen, and to be in the first season of the long-running PBS Mystery! series. The casting of Alan Dobie as Cribb was inspired and the direction and set design were terrific. Looking back, my only regret is that the format was a one-hour story and my eight novels were used up quickly, with the plots severely pruned. These days, you’d get a couple of hours for each one and maybe more. My wife Jax and I wrote six more original screenplays and some of them worked better than the adaptations from books.
M.E. You’ve written so many books with a historical setting. What’s the appeal to you of history?
P.L. I know the Victorian period well through my interest in the history of sport. I learned a lot about the attitudes of people at the time, their little vanities and hypocrisies as well as their ways of survival in a class-ridden society. I tried to reflect this in the books.
M.E. Another advantage of writing historicals is that you don’t have to keep up with rapidly changing forensic science.
P.L. Dead right. They weren’t even using fingerprints in the period I wrote about. It meant that the truth had to be revealed by shrewd questioning and sharp observation, which puts more emphasis on the detective.
M.E. Any plans to go back to the Victorian era?
P.L. No, but regular readers will have noticed that there’s often some history in the Diamond novels.
M.E. Bertie, son of Queen Victoria and future king, starred in three books which are among your most light-hearted. One was a hugely enjoyable Agatha Christie spoof.
P.L. Glad you noticed. Bertie and the Seven Bodies came out in the year of her centenary, but nobody at the time picked up on the connection.
M.E. How did the experience of writing those books compare with that of writing your other novels?
P.L. They were written in the first person, as if I was the voice of Bertie, and that energised me. The joke was that he was hopeless as a sleuth, but had the power to call in Scotland Yard or keep them at arm’s length if he wished. The first of them, Bertie and the Tinman, was called ‘Dick Francis by gaslight’ in one review. I don’t know if that ever got back to Dick.
M.E. One of your most admired books is The False Inspector Dew, with its echoes of that endlessly fascinating murder mystery, the Crippen case. What is your take on the Crippen mystery?
P.L. I can’t allow you to pat me on the back without mentioning your own ingenious historical novel about Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman. Like you, and Raymond Chandler come to that, I feel a certain regard for the little man, whose name became a byword for cruel murder. Even Inspector Dew, who was made to look pretty foolish at the time, had a sneaking sympathy for him. And it’s one of the few genuine love stories in the annals of crime.
M.E. Do you think he was guilty, or that the ‘DNA evidence’ publicized some time ago changes the picture?
P.L. The story that the remains in the cellar were those of a male, and not his wife? No, I can’t get my head around that.
M.E. Clearly you’re interested in real-life murder cases.
P.L. The interest goes back to early childhood. During the war we were bombed out and my reading opportunities were limited. Eventually my father brought home two second-hand books, one of which was the Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall. I was about nine and had just discovered the joy of reading and seized on this book, a biography of the great defense lawyer. I was soon immersed in some colorful cases: the Brides in the Bath, the Green Bicycle Case, Seddon the poisoner and Madame Fahmy at the Savoy Hotel. Irresistible!
M.E. Are there other cases you have used as source material – or that you might adapt for fictional purposes in the future?
P.L. The murder of Gay Gibson aboard the Durban Castle in 1947 gave me an idea for The False Inspector Dew. And the spate of nineteenth century poisonings of despicable husbands by resourceful wives provided the inspiration for Waxwork , the last of the Sergeant Cribb novels. Several of my short stories are also based loosely on cases I read about.
M.E. Another history-mystery, but closer to the present day, was On the Edge, a stand-alone which again was televised. What was the inspiration for that book?
P.L. It was ‘history’ within my lifetime. In 1946 I was ten, so I remember the post-war era vividly. Women who had performed key jobs in the war years found themselves back in the far less glamorous ‘civvy street’, expected to knuckle down as housewives. No wonder some of them had murderous thoughts.
M.E. You’re a member of the Detection Club, with its ritual devised by Dorothy L. Sayers.
P.L. Yes, I was admitted in 1974, the same year as Ngaio Marsh.
M.E. Did you meet her?
P.L. Unfortunately, no, she was unwell and couldn’t attend. Agatha Christie was president, but being shy preferred not to conduct the ritual. I did meet several of the great names of the past: Edmund Crispin, whose main income came from writing film music; Christianna Brand , marvellously indiscreet and funny; Eric Ambler, discreet and serious; and Len Deighton, who bought champagne for everyone.
M.E. Later you met Leslie Charteris, the author of the Saint books.
P.L. One of the great moments in my life. Just now I told you about the two books my father brought home after the bombing. The second was Alias the Saint, which I mistook for a religious book until I opened it and discovered mystery fiction for the first time. Many years after, in 1992, I was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association and we had to decide who would receive the Cartier Diamond Dagger. You can imagine my excitement at presenting this award for a lifetime of outstanding work to this charming and charismatic man at a special ceremony in the House of Lords. My life had come full circle.
(This is a revised version of an interview first published in Mystery Scene.)