WOBBLE TO DEATH by Peter Lovesey, 1970; my rather battered edition, 1980.
Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 27
Sometimes life just gets in the way, and so do self-imposed rules. The rules of this project dictate that I must read what the dice select.
Life, on the other hand, has ensured that I just haven’t had the time to give The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England my full attention. Actually, I probably never will, and it was never my area of archaeology, so why I’ve got this title baffles me. It’s time to overturn those self-imposed rules (I knew this would happen sooner or later, but I’ve been so good that making the decision was difficult) and roll those dice again.
Phew – detective fiction! Extremely tatty, pages-falling-away-from-the-binding-because-I’ve-read-it-so-often detective fiction. I love this book.
Actually, I love Peter Lovesey’s books. Some more than others, but I have been known to track them down in France, where classy detective fiction is properly valued (I even found one on a station bookstall, and Un flic et des limiers (aka Bloodhounds) kept me thoroughly entertained during a boring journey). But the Inspector Cribb titles are my favourites, and that accounts for the shocking condition of this one. Some are, at last, being reissued, so it may be time for a replacement, but for ages it was only available – even through Abebooks – as a large-print edition. Shameful…
Wobble To Death is the first of the Sergeant Cribb books, and was originally published as the result of a competition.
Submitting it was cheeky, because the book itself is set in a competition – an six-day endurance walking contest in Victorian London (‘for cruelty, knuckle-fighting don’t compare with it’), in which a star contestant is knocked off.
It’s immaculately plotted, but that’s not what draws me back. It’s the context, I think: the meticulously researched world of London in 1879. Of course the quality of the writing and the tightness of the plot are essential, but the whole atmosphere of this book – and of the others involving Cribb – is something I find addictive.
The basic setting may seem unlikely (most of us only know of similar contests from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), but such races were not unusual, and Wobble to Death was inspired by Lovesey’s interest in the history of athletics.
But it’s everything else you want from a good who-done-it as well, not just the interesting result of thorough research and understanding. It grabs me right from the very start, from a cold November Monday midnight – the wobble starts at 1 a.m. – in Islington.
‘The 12.05 a.m. trundled out of Highbury and Islington station and along the line. Its rhythmic snorts were replaced by unmechanical sounds. Harsh, stomach-wrenching coughs echoed in the tunnel leading to the platform. Then the clatter of heavily shod boots and shoes. The unexpected influx of midnight passengers massed at the barrier, every one muffled to the eyebrows and topped with a cap or bowler. A ticket collector, scowling under his cheese-cutter, came out to draw back the grille. They filed through, out of the booking hall and into a dense fog.’
That unprepossessing collection are the Press, come to report on the contest. By Tuesday, one of the main contestants is dead. Accident, a consequence of the disgusting conditions in the Agricultural Halls? The result of doping (yes, it was happening over a century ago)? Deliberate interference? And when Sergeant Cribb – and his long-suffering assistant Constable Thackeray – are called in to investigate, a whole series of revelations expose a variety of deceptions. Oh, and a murderer. In the end…
I am glad I bent the rules. Normally I hesitate about re-reading detective fiction, but this – and Lovesey’s other books – doesn’t suffer if you can remember who did it. As it happened, I couldn’t – or not until the last few pages, anyway. Whether that matters or not is the mark of a truly good murder mystery.