BEAU DEATH: A DETECTIVE PETER DIAMOND MYSTERY
By Peter Lovesey
Soho, $27.95, 416 pages
It is a skeleton sitting in a chair in an ancient attic, dressed in 18th century clothes, a black wig and a white tricorn hat on its battered head, and it has no teeth.
It is the trigger to the latest case to come to the attention of Deterctive Superintendent Peter Diamond, that indestructible weapon of British law concocted by — who else — but the indestructible Peter Lovesey.
The irascible Diamond is not thrilled by the discovery of what might, unlikely as it seems, be the body of “Beau” Nash, the famously historical dandy who put the picturesque city of Bath on the map in a way not everyone liked at the time. Research into the life and times of Beau shows him to be an 18th-century notable who turned Bath into the premier destination for masculine fashion.
Beau himself is an icon of Bath’s sartorial trends. He is also catnip for the local ladies of varied social standing.
Det. Diamond is intrigued but doubtful about what he and his faithful team have unearthed, quite literally. His doubts multiply and his temper becomes even more uncertain as weird facts emerge about Beau who supposedly died in a pauper after a luxurious life. That high-flying life crumbled into hard times, followed by a resting place in a poor man’s grave in the town where he had once socially ruled.
The findings become more lurid leading to a hilarious dig in a downpour by exhausted coppers who of course all work for Diamond who’s popularity is at a low ebb.
In the meantime, a high level female police official has accidentally encountered what might be called the remains of the Beau Nash society, which still exists among the more fashionable members of Bath society. Given the Lovesey style, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore, the ranking officer, makes the discovery when she consumes too many gin and tonics and is rescue by the society woman who is the wife of the Nash society leader.
Now things are getting interesting, even for Diamond, who has come to suspect that this mystery is more 20th- than 18th-century and that a brand new murder of a local hippie type involves a smoothly run drug ring. He leans on Paloma, his occasional lover, to use her many social and literary contacts to strengthen a case that stretches closer to the current day than to the skeleton in the attic.
Diamond is even persuaded by Paloma to wear a classic Beau Nash outfit to the society ball, which proves far more dangerous than he expects, especially when it imperils the plucky Paloma.
The current aristocracy of Bath finds itself dealing with a detective who is interested only in solving sudden death even if it means having to embarrass himself in an outfit he would not have been caught dead if he weren’t determined to follow the fashion tastes of that dandy Beau Nash, who is central to solving the mystery.
The question oi whose corpse is dangling in a battered chair with a dent in its head is of course answered, and many mysteries are solved to the satisfaction of Diamond. Mr. Lovesey, as might be expected, moves from a hilarious launching of the plot — which is his usual style — to a delectable collection of vivid characters and an avalanche of clues, many of them leading in the wrong direction.
Therein of course a denouement dramatic enough even for Diamond and a nice twist of an ending. All the reader has to do is wait for Mr. Lovesey to write the next in what is an estimated three dozen books, all of them highly readable.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.