I’m always chuffed when the chosen year for Crimes of the Century coincides with a title in the CWA top 100 list. This month’s chosen year of 1987 yielded some true classics: Presumed Innocent, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, What Bloody Man is That?, and A Fatal Inversion. Would this Peter Lovesey title match up?
Bertie and the Tinman is the story in his own words of the future King Edward VII’s involvement in a (fictional) 1886 murder investigation.
Edward – Bertie – was the eldest son of Queen Victoria. He was deliberately excluded from affairs of state by his decidedly odd mother, and so directed his considerable energies towards his many hobbies, amongst them wine, women, song and horses. It is the horses which bring him to the role of detective in this story.
Fred Archer – the Tinman – is the greatest jockey in England. The book opens as he shoots himself in his Newmarket home after speaking his last words: ‘Are they coming?’.
(The account of Archer’s death is true, by the way, and his monument can be seen in Newmarket.)
The inquest puts his suicide down to typhoid-induced hallucinations, but Bertie has had typhoid himself and doesn’t believe that for a moment. Plus he cannot think of a single reasonable motive for Archer to take his own life. Smelling a rat, he decides to look deeper into the death, recruiting some accomplices to do the work he is too well-known to handle himself.
Peter Lovesey’s version of Bertie reads like George MacDonald Fraser’s caddish adventurer Flashman. He is a womanising wastrel (and a bit of a bully) who delights in his own bad behaviour.
Every bedroom I’ve ever slept in— and I speak from not inconsiderable experience— has had its display of family photographs on the tallboy: Mama and Grandmama and the Great Aunts and Our Wedding (which I generally turn to the wall).
His saving grace is that, unlike Flashman, he has a heart of gold.
I was gripped by horrid sensations. I was appalled, afraid and, worse, I was convinced that I was responsible.
As a tour of Victorian life, from the races to the music hall, from Sandringham to a naughty weekend party, Bertie and the Tinman delivers much of interest. Unfortunately for me, the mystery is set squarely in the world of the ‘Turfites’ – the racing fraternity – which I just don’t find has much fascination, even though Lovesey does his best to explain its charm:
The Cambridgeshire is the last great race of the season, with a character all its own. It gives the final chance for a horse to impress before it goes to winter quarters, an uphill 1 mile 240 yards for three-year-olds and over, where sprinters and stayers can try conclusions. Fortunes are staked on the outcome. For a betting man, the good old Cambridgeshire has more to commend it than the classics.
My verdict: A decent read, but nothing special. I’d rather read Flashman than Bertie – he is funnier. The horse-racing milieu does nothing for me, and the mystery is so-so. Lovesey has three books in the CWA top 100: this one, the excellent The False Inspector Dew, and Wobble to Death, which features his down-trodden Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb. I’d read the other two before this one…
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: As for the plot… well, either it’s more of an adventure rather than a mystery OR there’s a late-ish twist that turns everything on its head. Can I say more than that? Not really – only that as a mystery, it’s fairly disappointing. The denouement didn’t contain anything remotely surprising. Given the cleverness that usually appears in a Peter Lovesey plot, I was astonished that at the end of the day, things were pretty obvious. Everything is arrived at in an extremely fun way… but to be honest, as a mystery I found it lacking. I can see that a less well-read armchair detective might be fooled…