SS MAURETANIA. 9 SEPT 1921.
REFERENCE SUSPICIOUS DEATH ON BOARD HAVE INVITED CHIEF INSPECTOR DEW OF SCOTLAND YARD TO INVESTIGATE. A. H. ROSTRON, CAPTAIN.
The False Inspector Dew opens with two vividly described set-pieces – the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the triumphal arrival of Charlie Chaplin in London in 1921 – but the drama really gets going with a young woman named Alma Webster lying in a chair being lectured about oral hygiene. Alma, an inexperienced and over-imaginative girl, is falling head over heels in love with her dentist, the romantically named Walter Baranov.
Alma’s conception of love is derived from her collection of lurid fiction, and she is desperately looking to be the heroine of her own story. She lives largely inside her own head:
The war had changed everything. She had stopped reading novels. She had taken a job. Like the women working in munitions factories, she had cut her hair. She had had it bobbed. She was not herself employed in a munitions factory, because there were none within a bus-ride of her home. She had dealt with correspondence to the Richmond and Twickenham Times. When she had gone home after having her hair bobbed, she had looked in the mirror and discovered her face had changed. It was no longer beautiful. It was heroic. She had deep-set eyes with long, dark lids capable of seeing the worst of the world with compassion.
Walter Baranov, a strong, silent type, fits the bill of romantic hero. For his part, he is unhappily married to the wealthy Lydia who has used her inheritance to set him up in his dental practice. Lydia is an actress of dubious talent who is getting fewer and fewer parts as she loses her youthful good looks. He views the marriage as a cold-blooded business arrangement; Lydia views him as a captive audience for her home-grown histrionics.
Walter and Alma get together but immediately face a crisis. Lydia decides to up sticks and pursue a career in Hollywood – Walter has to go with her, or lose his wife, his home, and his business. The lovers decide that Lydia must die, and hatch a plan to kill her aboard the S. S. Mauretania as she travels to America. Walter will go aboard using a false name and push his wife out of a porthole. Alma will sneak aboard ship and assume Lydia’s stateroom. They will be reunited in New York.
Walter, inspired by the story of Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve, chooses to go aboard using the alias Walter Dew – the name of the now-retired policeman who crossed the Atlantic to arrest the famous murderer in 1910.
However, things are not going to be as simple as that. Who better than the famous Inspector Dew to investigate the mysterious death of a woman aboard ship? The Captain appoints Walter, to the chagrin of Saxon, the ship’s official policeman, who can’t wait to convict the most obvious suspect.
Not altogether reluctantly (he is a born sham) Walter begins putting together a case. He hits upon the policy of giving nothing away as an investigative ploy, and is pleased to find it brings him great success.
Meanwhile, Alma is finding that the romance of having a man kill his wife for her has an unfortunate result – she will be marrying a murderer… Luckily, she soon finds solace in the person of a plausible car salesman named Johnny Finch.
The False Inspector Dew pulls off the trick of being a funny mystery novel without being overly knowing or descending into farce. Walter Dew is a brilliant creation. I’m not entirely sure if he is supposed to be very clever or very stupid, but his taciturnity is hilarious.
Captain Rostron intervened. ‘Mr Saxon, it’s not for you to question the way the Inspector conducts his investigation. I’ve no doubt that he had his reasons for acting as he did.’ He turned expectantly to Walter.
‘Several,’ responded Walter.
The chapter introducing Alma is a wonderful piece of writing, worthy of Wodehouse, as is the next excerpt. In a more sweetly romantic subplot, Barbara, a nerdy young American, is trying to catch the eye of eligible bachelor Paul. She has a hairdo and starts to experience life in a breathless rush.
Forbes took Barbara to a tea dance at the Café de Paris, where she met Arnold, who wore a monocle and was more entertaining. Arnold treated her to cakes and iced coffee at the Grafton Galleries, where there were picture covered with tissue paper to spare the blushes of young ladies like herself. A black band played jazz until 2am and Arnold tried to one-step and nudged a woman with his elbow. She spilt her iced coffee down the trousers of her partner and Arnold used the tissue cover from a picture to mop it up. While this was happening a young man named Rex told Barbara that she was the loveliest creature his eyes had ever lighted on.
Rex was very passionate. Over lunch in Claridge’s the next day he threatened suicide if Barbara would not make him happy in the suite he had reserved upstairs. To convince her he took a silver revolver from his pocket and laid it on the table. Barbara kept cool. She was chic but not available. She picked up the revolver and dropped it in a champagne bucket. Arnold told her later that Rex was famous for producing his revolver at Claridge’s.
I’d read this book before, but had managed to forget the elaborate sub-plots involving pickpockets, card-sharps and wealthy Americans. So even though I remembered the bare bones of Walter and Alma’s story, there was much to enjoy.
The False Inspector Dew is widely considered to be Peter Lovesey’s masterpiece. The cover of this edition really lets it down, but don’t let that stop you – this is a lovely book.
See also: Peter Lovesey’s website,
Final destination: A keeper
I’ll be entering The False Inspector Dew in the 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (‘Read one mystery that involves water’).
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.