Another chubby police detective. This time it's Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond who I've just met in The Last Detective. While the Op is a cynical, street-smart investigator, DS Diamond of the Bath murder squad is somewhat curmudgeonly and prefers to do things the old-fashioned way, but he's not without sympathetic leanings. My first encounter with him began in a mortuary.
"In the Bristol City mortuary a body lay on a steel trolley. In profile the swell of the stomach suggested nothing less than a mountainous landscape. Or to an imaginative eye it might have been evocative of a dinosaur lurking in a primeval swamp except that a brown trilby hat of the sort seen in 1940s films rested on the hump. The body was clothed in a double-breasted suit much creased at the points of stress, grey in colour, with a broad check design - well known in Avon and Somerset Police as the working attire of Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond. His silver-fringed bald head was propped on a rubber sheet he had found folded on a shelf. He was breathing evenly."
Four year earlier he was involved in a murder investigation that resulted in the wrongful conviction of one of the suspects, a case that has besmirched Diamond's record, and he has an inkling that his new partner is a plant by his superiors to keep a close eye on him. Now the naked body of a woman has been found in a local reservoir with foul play suspected in her death. Initially no one comes forward to claim the woman until a likeness is presented to the public and then the common response is that she looks like an actress on TV. Disbelief turns to shock when it's confirmed that Geraldine Snoo, famous for her former role in a popular soap opera is indeed the dead woman.
Of course the obvious suspect in murder cases is the spouse, in this case Gerry was married to a university professor whose area of expertise is Jane Austen. An unlikely pairing, a beautiful soap star and a scholarly professor, but the two seem to have had a rather open relationship. Gerry was a child star whose fame came early and with the force of a speeding train. She barely had time to grow up and certainly little time to have fun and lead a normal life. Axed from her show several years prior after many years in the limelight she seems to have been making up for lost time and maybe, too, hard feelings for the end of her career with a large circle of partying friends.
Because of the separate lives the two led, Greg Jackman, didn't raise the alarm on his missing wife as he didn't suspect she was actually missing. It wasn't uncommon for his wife to go off on her own to London. Despite the unusual nature of their marriage, he's not at a loss to answer Diamond's questions, however. As a matter of fact the waters become muddied when he claims that his wife actually tried to murder him. A fire was set the couple's summerhouse where Greg had been sleeping and he's convinced Gerry set it. Why he believes she did so complicates matters.
Red herrings or something more? There are a few disparate threads in the story that will eventually wrap around each other. One is the discovery of two letters purported to have been written by Jane Austen that Dr. Jackman had planned on using in a exhibit of Jane Austen and Bath, which he had unhappily been in the middle of planning. It's ironic, he notes, that the City of Bath wants a major exhibit of Jane when she was so unhappy to have been living there. But the inclusion of the letters was something of a coup, until they went missing. Although he doesn't exactly know why, he's sure Gerry had something to do with their theft.
The second wrench thrown in the proceedings, or rather the second occurrence in the professor's life, is a young student who Professor Jackman witnessed falling into the river and was swept up into the current. Greg jumped in and dragged the boy to safety, but rather than receive a hero's recognition he fled the scene before anyone could question him. Eventually the two do finally meet up, along with the boy's divorced mother, riling a streak of jealousy in Gerry.
Just how the seemingly disparate threads meet and twine together, as they most certainly will, is part of the mystery and solution to the crime. And how it's all pieced together is the meat of the story, and Diamond's nod to the effectiveness of good, traditional, detective work. He calls himself the "last detective". With the rise of technology (and note the book was published in 1991), Peter Diamond is loathe to give up his standard practices in police work. At one point he tells his detectives, ". . . it looks like we're forced to fall back on the Diamond method of investigation - good, old-fashioned doorstepping." Ultimately it's this hard work that unravels the mystery.
The story is not without humor, as obsessed he is about not depending on technology, he does give in and buy his wife a microwave, though she has by story's end yet to perfect cooking a meal in it that isn't crunchy on the outside and raw on the inside. The Last Detective is a good, solid, traditional police procedural that definitely falls into the cozy camp rather than the hardboiled. While on the curmudgeonly side, Peter Diamond is still entirely likable.
The story is structured a little unusually in that the narrative shifts from Peter Diamond to two of the suspects and the reader gets to hear their perspectives along with that of the detective's. The story ends in a courtroom drama with an explosive revelation. As first books in a series go, I found the story quite entertaining, though it seems to have garnered some mixed reviews. The narrative shifts do make it a little uneven, but it's only in retrospect that I feel that. I'm sufficiently intrigued by DS Diamond to read the next book, Diamond Solitaire. Not sure when I'll get to it, but it's already on my reading pile.