October 20, 2004

Wobble to Death, by Peter Lovesey

I'm a fan of Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, as is Deb English; but I've recently discovered that Lovesey has also written a series of mysteries set in Victorian England and involving a police sergeant (later inspector) named Cribb. They are long out of print, at least here in the United States, and I'd never seen any until a recent conference brought me to New Orleans. The French Quarter has six or seven used book shops, and I visited all but one of them (occult and new age stuff, not my thing). And in those six or seven shops I located four of the Cribb novels, of which this is the first.

The book's a competently written mystery; had I been in the mood for a mystery and picked it up at random, I'd not have been disappointed. But Cribb isn't particularly interesting, and Lovesey shows little of the flair I've come to expect from his later books. (Great word, flair--I'm not at all sure what it means in this context, except that Lovesey's writing has improved in the decades since 1970.)

The setting, on the other hand, is fascinating. It seems that footraces of various kinds were popular in mid-Victorian England, and one kind in particular--the Six-Day Go-As-You-Like, also known, gruesomely, as the Six-Day Wobble. The rules are simple: the racers have six days to walk or run as far as they can. That's six contiguous 24-hour periods--there are no mandated breaks. You can take a rest whenever you like, for as long as you like, you can eat whatever you like (provided you have someone to bring it to you), insecure in the knowledge that while you are resting or eating that your competitors might still be wobbling along.

Six-Day Wobbles were usually held on the open road; this book concerns a race held on a track in London's Agricultural Hall. There are two favorites, experienced "pedestrians" both, competing against each other on an inner track, and a number of unproven riff-raff competing on the outer track, and things look good for the race's promoter until one of the favorites collapses on the second day. Enter Sergeant Cribb and his dogsbody Constable Thackery.

Bottom-line: not bad, and I'm quite curious to see if Cribb develops into a more memorable character.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 20, 2004 06:03 PM