Waxwork: A Sergeant Cribb Investigation
by Peter Lovesey
Cover Artist: From Charles Dicken's The Old Curiosity Shop
courtesy of Hulton Archives / Getty Images
Review by Cathy Green
Soho Constable Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781569476468
Date: 01 June 2010 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Before Peter Lovesey wrote his current popular modern police procedural series featuring Inspector Diamond, he was popular for a set of period police procedurals set in 1880s London featuring Sergeant Cribb that he wrote in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the books went out of print for a while, at least in the United States. Fortunately, Soho Publishing has been putting them back in print, with the most recent one being Waxwork.
In Waxwork, Sgt. Cribb is given a thankless task by his nemesis Chief Inspector Jowett. Miriam Cromer has pled guilty to poisoning her husband's assistant Josiah Perceval with cyanide from a cabinet in her husband's photography studio, claiming he was blackmailing her. The case appears cut and dried, as Miriam pled guilty in open court. However, before Miriam's sentence of hanging is to be carried out, the Home Office receives from an anonymous sender an envelope containing a picture showing her husband, with the key to the cabinet containing the cyanide on his waist. Since the only other key never left the possession of the murder victim, Miriam's confession and the whole case is thrown into doubt. Anxious to avoid public embarrassment given the notoriety of the case, Jowett calls on Sgt. Cribb to resolve the problem discretely.
Cribb is placed in a damned if you do damned if you don't position. He cannot turn the case down without destroying his career, but if he cannot solve the case, the result will be equally career destroying. And solving the case will probably only result in the greater glory of Jowett's career while leaving Cribb with no reward given Chief Inspector Jowett's animosity towards Cribb, which to date has taken the form of preventing his promotion to Inspector and personally undertaking the mandatory periodic inspections of Crib's home. Of course, as soon as Cribb starts digging in an effort to explain away this problematic piece of evidence things get even more complicated.
Lovesey has given his readers a classic locked room, or in this case locked cabinet, mystery. In addition to providing an intriguing puzzle, Lovesey gives his readers a detailed picture of life in 1880s England. We are given a sense of what home life was life for people of Sgt. Cribb's station in life as well as that of the considerably more middle class Cromers. There is also a fair amount of detail given to what prison was like in England in the 1880s, with Sgt. Cribb noting that given the sort of punishment meted out, such as the treadmill and the requirement of silence, hanging might actually be preferable for some to a life sentence. We are also given nicely creepy details such as how the hangman supplemented his income by selling the clothing of famous murderers to Madame Tussuad's.
Aside from the well written mystery, readers should enjoy the incredible level of detail Lovesey gives to the police procedures, the prison procedures, the clothing, the offices and the homes. It's like a novel version of PBS's Mystery. Waxwork is a stand alone mystery, so it will be as accessible to readers new to the series as it will be to fans.