Saturday, June 11, 2011

Revenge of the Mad Hatter

Brighton, 1882. It is the height of the vacationing season, and Albert Moscorp is the protagonist of the story. While on vacation, he becomes involved with the family of Mrs. Zena Prothero, a beautiful woman married to a doctor who seems ignorant of her attractive qualities. But of course, this is a mystery, and after a bit, murder intervenes to cut someone’s holiday short… It is a grisly murder case, in which only a select few of the limbs are recovered by the police: the victim’s severed hand, as it happens, is found in the aquarium’s alligator cavern…

First off, let’s get my major problem with this book out of the way at once: I hate the character of Albert Moscorp. He is a disturbing and frankly psychotic creation: he spies on the entire beach through his various binoculars and telescopes. When he sees Zena Prothero through the lens, he takes plenty of pains to acquaint himself with the family, justifying it all in the name of science. How does he manage to introduce himself to Mrs. Prothero? Quite simple: he kidnaps their young child when they’re not paying attention only to return it. It is a frankly alarming sequence which had my jaw hanging wide open as I waited to see whether we would enter the domain of pedophilia or not. The voyeuristic delights Moscorp takes are creepy: like Drury Lane, he is an unsuccessful, unlikeable experiment, with eccentricities taken to the maximum. This is the main character, folks… The person I would estimate we waste well over half the book on… Enjoy!

The detective duo of Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray are called in to solve the case. Cribb seems a rather competent individual most of the time, but Constable Thackeray gives you the feeling of “The lights are on, but nobody’s home.” Thackeray gives us a lot of the best comedy in the book, such as when he describes a lady he interviewed while she was lying in her bed:

“Oh, a regular beauty, Sarge! No question of it. A face like a china doll and a show of red hair I’ve never seen the equal of. I suppose she wears it different when she goes out, but it was hanging loose down her back when I saw it. I don’t know what she’s like dressed and on her feet, Sarge, but she’s a stunner in bed, I promise you!”

The duo does a decent job playing off of each other, and I’m glad that Lovesey didn’t go into their various pasts and so on. I get the feeling that the less you know about them, the more interesting they are.

The historical setting in Mad Hatter’s Holiday is extremely boring. The attempts to give the tale historical colour are often eye-roll-worthy, such as the oh-so-ironic beliefs Doctor Prothero has on the relationship between disease and seawater. The background is simply bland. It’s like a literary potluck: you have to bring your own historical colour.

Near the end of the novel, a second death occurs which, if murder, can only be an impossible crime! My interest picked up, and the answer is genuinely clever. The intricate details behind how the trick was pulled off are absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, the main idea of “howdunnit” is so bloomin’ obvious, the police investigator, Sergeant Cribb, looks incredibly dense taking as long as he does to figure out how it was done.

Peter Lovesey has a very fun sense of humour and it comes in quite handy sometimes. Consider this passage, for instance, where Albert Moscorp observes a woman bather in a red-and-white suit swimming with a male (GASP!!! They’re even holding hands, if you please!!!) in a blue bathing suit:

Then, as he watched, she was caught in the cusp of a larger wave, tipped off-balance and swept several yards inshore, shrieking in delighted panic, and ending inelegantly on hands and knees in the shallows. From there she subsided, laughing, into a sitting position, tugging down the sailor collar that had ridden up around her head. How it was that her companion was thereupon similarly upended by the action of the water and carried irresistibly towards the same spot must remain one of the ocean’s mysteries. Suffice to say that the next moment Moscorp saw the red, white and blue in a conjunction that had nothing to do with patriotism.

Unfortunately, in this book, you tumble to whodunit by the same process of elimination as in George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties: simply select the most psychotic character, and you have your killer! There certainly isn’t any other evidence pointing in X’s path… but the character is such a psycho, it’s a wonder he/she/they/it were allowed to walk around loose as long as they were.

And with the solution, Lovesey seems to be trying to cement his characters as good ones. The problem is, they have been walking caricatures for almost the entire novel: the womanizing husband, the innocent wife, the bratty child… It just doesn’t work.

There are many encouraging signs about Peter Lovesey: there’s an actual attempt here to create a clever plot, albeit with mixed results, and when Lovesey isn’t preoccupied with developing Moscorp’s character or throwing historical stuff your way, the story is told in a fun style. I suspect Lovesey would work better writing in a modern day setting. Overall, Mad Hatter’s Holiday (which really has no other connection to Alice in Wonderland or that delightful character its title refers to) is an entry into mediocrity with a few points of interest.

12 comments:

  1. 'There are many encouraging signs about Peter Lovesey'. Well, I should hope so...the book is 38 years old! These days Lovesey is one of Britain's top crime writers. I can appreciate that you don't like MAD HATTER'S HOLIDAY, but you have to realise that it was only his fourth book.It isn't my favourite of the Cribb series, but I hardly think that it deserves the pasting that you give it. I've read far worse stuff, and some of it from established authors. If you want to give Lovesey a proper chance, then look at WAXWORK, THE FALSE INSPECTOR DEW, THE SUMMONS, HEADHUNTERS, ROUGH CIDER, BERTIE AND THE 7 BODIES, BLOODHOUNDS amongst many others.

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  2. Once again, poor phrasing seems to be my undoing. What I meant was that there are encouraging signs about Lovesey that may end up making me a fan yet. BLOODHOUNDS would have probably been a better starting point. I did look it up and realised it was his 4th, so I'm going to be forgiving and give Lovesey another chance. The main thing that prevented my enjoyment of this book was the creepiness surrounding Moscorp, but it wasn't *awful*.

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  3. Don't you think you're too easily shocked, Patrick? The kidnapping scene you described comes across to me as an attempt at black humor, but then again, I could be wrong – and if that's the case it shouldn't come as a shocking surprise. It's a modern detective, after all!

    I'v only read Bloodhounds, which is a fun homage to us fans and has a nicely done locked room mystery, but I always wanted to read more of him – especially The False Inspector Dew. Well, one day...

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  4. Hm... perhaps I *am* easily shocked. Still, I stand by my words: that kidnapping scene was alarming stuff. I didn't see it coming at all. Nothing compromising did come out of it, but the way it was described lent it a sinister aspect that I couldn't quite get over.

    Still, the good signs are there, and I will certainly read BLOODHOUNDS.

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  5. I second Anonymous' recommendation of ROUGH CIDER - Lovesey's masterpiece in my opinion. BERTIE AND THE SEVEN BODIES is lots of fun too. I'm less keen on the Peter Diamond books - read only two including the much-hyped THE SUMMONS and wasn't impressed. Lovesey is a very uneven writer and too prone to base his works on gimmicks. His short-story writing is top-notch, though.

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  6. I've looked up ROUGH CIDER and THE FALSE INSPECTOR DEW, and I confess I'm intrigued. I've placed the books on hold from my library... and I still have that newly bought copy of BLOODHOUNDS!

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  7. Patrick: I'm glad that you're still prepared to give Lovesey another go. I tend to be a bit of a flag waver for this particular author, but I do think that he's one of the best contemporary crime novelists.

    Xavier: Do you really find him uneven? I think that I've enjoyed all of his books, which is something that I can say about very few authors. Not sure about 'basing his work on gimmicks'. Surely that is something he has in common with a lot of Golden Age writers, whose work we tend to favour in this forum.

    By the way, how do I avoid having to use the 'Anonymous' tag? These things always confuse me!

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  8. @Anonymous

    Just select NAME/URL in the drop box, fill in your (nick) name (URL is optional), write a comment, type in the word verification and hit the 'post comment' button.

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  9. And if anything, there's the dependable old-fashioned method where you end your post by writing your name.

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  10. Crikey, it works!

    Cheers,
    Sextonblake

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  11. Rough Cider, little known, is easily Lovesey's best book. You might also enjoy his homage to Freeman Wills Crofts, On the Edge.

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  12. So many books, so little time... I can only hope I'll have time to get around to them all!

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Due to a recent resurgence in spam messages, I have disabled anonymous commenting. I realize this may be annoying to some users who do not wish to sign up for a Google account, but this is the easiest way for me to deal with spam and still have comments appear in a timely manner.

Please keep all discussion civil.