Wednesday 16 May 2012

Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey

What is the biggest writing challenge facing an established crime writer? (There are various challenges not directly linked to writing, such as the state of the market, relationships with publishers and so on, but that’s a topic for another day.) My answer to the question I’ve posed is this: the challenge of ensuring that one’s work remains fresh and varied, and that the dictates of formula don’t have a deadening effect.

It’s perhaps a challenge that is faced most acutely by established and highly successful authors. They have succeeded by writing a particular kind of story, so there is a temptation to keep writing it. The temptation is all the greater when a series enjoys commercial success. Those novelists whom I admire most are those who have the courage to keep trying something new, even within the apparent strait-jacket of a series with continuing characters.

Peter Lovesey is one writer who rises to the challenge time and again. I’m tempted to say he does so effortlessly, but I’m sure that the smooth readability of his books (like those of another superb entertainer, the late Michael Gilbert whose work I also enjoy enormously) disguises a great deal of effort and hard work.

His latest novel, Cop to Corpse, is an excellent example of his ability to ring the changes. This is another in his long-running series featuring Peter Diamond, the Bath-based cop, but it is rather darker in tone than many of the earlier books in the series, even though police office politics does provide some light relief. The structure is unusual.  The first couple of chapters are told in the present tense, and the main narrative is interspersed with lengthy blog posts written by a youngish woman.

The plot, which involves the killing of three policemen, and an attack on a fourth (plus an attack on Diamond) is extremely elaborate. As a result, the book is longer than some of Lovesey’s earlier books, but the quality of writing remains high. The story may be unorthodox, but it is certainly entertaining, and proof – were it needed – that one of Britain’s most distinguished mystery novelists is still as good at keeping us guessing as ever. Long may he continue to entertain his many fans.

(Please note, the comments contain a spoiler about the previous book in the series.)


Maxine Clarke said...

I haven't read Peter Lovesey for many years - but your question is a good one. In my experience virtually all series degenerate into formula after a while - sometimes no doubt because the author runs out of inspiration but sometimes because it sells (eg James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, etc). My hat is off to authors such as Michael Connelly, who sells by the truckload but never resorts to lazy formula - he has kept the faith with his readers.

Another approach I've liked, and is pehaps more common in Scandinavian crime (?), is the "planned books in a finite number" approach. This was most successfully achieved for crime fiction by Sjowall and Wahloo, each of their 10 Martin Beck books focused on one type of crime fiction as well as developing a planned story arc about the characters and the social evolution of the country and its police force in particular. This approach has been most effectively (of all time!) used by J K Rowling of course - whose Harry Potter series of 7 is a masterly development - just look at all the little clues and hints in the first book that become full blown plot elements in later ones.

Patrick said...

And I've been beaten to the punch once again. I was actually planning to make this my next read, but as we all know, the best laid plans yada-yada-yada...

Sextonblake said...

Lovesey has got to be one of the best Crime Writers in Britain, if not the world. I've been reading his stuff since the CRIBB TV series with Alan Dobie about thirty years ago. I've never been disappointed with one of his books, and several of them are classics. It's a puzzle to me that he is still not better known to the general public.

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent comments, thank you.
Maxine, well made points. I hope you give Peter another try - The Secret Hangman is especially good. The finite series idea is thought-provoking.
Patrick, glad you like his work.
SB - I agree wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

First I have to say I am a big fan of all your books. Love the Lake District series. I was wondering about the difference in books that are published in the UK and the ones we get here in the US. The UK ones seem to be longer if you compare pages in the two books (i.e. COP TO CORPSE)compared on amazon UK and US

Ian Payn said...

Whilst I enjoyed Cop to Corpse, one thing struck me as being very odd. Much play was made out of the resentment of the squad at the very suggestion that the killer might be "one of their own". Did Lovesey's previous entry in the series, Stagestruck, take place in a parallel universe, or have they all got amnesia?

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Anon. The books are the same in the UK and US, page count differences are due, I think, to different layouts.
Ian, a fair point!