implausible detectives: Peter Lovesey’s “Bertie” trilogy


Lovesey may be best known for his Victorian era Inspector Thackeray and Sergeant Cribb series, which had a brief run on PBS’ Mystery show, and his modern setting Peter Diamond mysteries. I confess a weakness for his ‘Bertie, Prince of Wales’ trilogy, Bertie and the Tinman, Bertie and the Seven Bodies and Bertie and the Crime of Passion. The ‘Bertie’ trilogy purports to be memoirs of Victoria’s son, Edward Albert, set down while his mother was still alive but put away in a safety deposit box until 100 years had passed from the events in the books. They aren’t, of course…we think.

The central mystery in the first of the three, Bertie and the Tinman, is based loosely on the death of a real jockey of the time, Frederick Archer. In the book, Archer dies of a gunshot wound and the cover(up) story is that he shot himself as a result of being unhinged from the fever associated with typhoid. The Crown Prince, or Bertie as he refers to himself, is dissatisfied with the coroner’s verdict and determines to uncover the truth behind the jockey’s death. Bertie and the Seven Bodies is even more farfetched; it’s set at a meticulously planned country house party, starring the Prince and Princess of Wales and things start off on a rattling good note…until the guests start getting offed, each with a note referring to the doggerel about [Day of the week]’s child. Apparently, this one was a tongue in cheek homage to Agatha Christie on the centenary of her birth, and it reads a bit like her work though with a strong overlay of Lovesey’s lampooning the upper classes. Bertie and the Crime of Passion is set in fin de siecle Paris. The murder starting events rolling in this book is of an upper class man affianced to a young woman (both upper class) and takes place in a night club patronized by artists and wealthy alike, allowing Bertie to be properly horrified at the differences between English and French life. In this one, his actions do flush out the real murderer, as a result of his conviction that the police have the wrong man, although as with the previous mysteries, he finds the solution through a completely erroneous series of deductions.

There’s a bit of truth in the books: ‘Bertie’ shares some character traits with the real Prince of Wales, and several of the supporting characters existed as well, but these are fiction through and through. They’re definitely cozy mysteries, and probably work best if you don’t take them too terribly seriously…indeed, I think that’s how we’re supposed to take them! No Sherlock Holmes he, Bertie makes a terribly improbable detective, for several reasons. He’s inept, guessing wrong at (almost) every turn and stumbling on correct answers only by mistake and often long after the police have already discovered the truth, with an inflated opinion of his own skills as an investigator. His position makes him a particularly noticeable detective; although the mysteries are set long before paparazzi, tabloids and international cable news, as Crown Prince of Britain, he’s too well known to lurk successfully. And too, erm, large. They’re all three fun reads and fast ones. Read them, enjoy them, and don’t think too hard about them.

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