Peter Lovesey is one of my all-time favourite crime writers. A truly exceptional talent, one of his many strengths is his versatility. Formulaic is the last word you could apply to his novels and given the nature of the genre – detective must find murderer – that’s quite a trick. Equally brilliant in writing period and contemporary crime, series and stand-alones, Peter Lovesey brings a fresh approach to every novel.
The False Inspector Dew is probably his most famous stand-alone. Published in 1982 it won the CWA Gold Dagger and is listed in The Times’ 100 Best Crime Novels of the 20th Century. This novel has one of the cleverest plots I’ve ever read and re-reading it recently has been a delight.
Set in 1921, this is the story of Alma Webster who reads Ethel M. Dell and dreams of romance. When she falls for Walter Baranov, a meek, married dentist, the scene is set for the murder of his wife. Meanwhile we meet a cast of intriguing, believable characters from all walks of life who will converge on the five-day sailing of R.M.S. Mauretania from Southampton to New York.
The novel is loosely inspired by the capture of Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve by the real Inspector Walter Dew, as they attempted to escape by ship to Canada in 1910. It has a vivid sense of place and the details of the Atlantic crossing are very well-researched. They’re interesting to me as my Grandad served on the Mauretania, reminiscing of ‘her’ as one of his favourite ships. With this particularly enclosed setting, the novel reminds me of a play.
The writing captures the authentic feel of a Golden Age yarn or a Hollywood talkie. The dialogue is witty and stylish and there’s a lovely sense of fun about the whole deadly caper. You feel that Peter Lovesey was thoroughly enjoying himself and that shines through this wonderful homage. He sends up the whole business of being a detective – although when murder occurs on board and Walter is mistaken for the real Inspector Dew, he turns out to be rather good at investigating his own plot.
Written in short chapters, this novel races along with a series of Lovesey’s trademark brilliant twists. He shuffles readers’ expectations like a card-sharp, one of the many reasons I love his books. If you enjoy period crime, The False Inspector Dew is simply a masterpiece.