A year ago, I read the lively A Case of Spirits (1975) and the book was my formal introduction to Peter Lovesey's Victorian-era policemen, Sgt. Cribb and Constable Thackeray, who appeared in only eight historical mystery novels published during the 1970s – which began with Wobble to Death (1970) and ended with Waxwork (1978). I was recently reminded that the first book from this series was still precariously balanced, somewhere, at the top of the big pile. So decided to finally take it off.
John Dickson Carr reviewed Wobble to Death in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and praised Lovesey for his unvarnished depiction of Victorian England ("here are true Victorians, not pious frauds of legend") and described the book as "a first-rate story of sustained thrills," but Carr's endorsement was not the only reason why I wanted to make this one my next stop in the series.
Lovesey has set many of his Sgt. Cribb mysteries against the background of Victorian crazes and entertainment, like spiritualism, but Wobble to Death takes place during a six-day Go-As-You-Please contest – an endurance test for "Proven Pedestrians" also known as Wobbles.
Sir John Astley instituted the endurance contests in March, 1878 and the sport, which even had championship belts, became very popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1880s. George Littlewood set the record of 623.4 miles in Madison Square Gardens (New York) in 1888 and a physiologist described Littlewood's endurance feat in Advancement Science as "probably be about the maximum sustained output of which the human frame is capable." Littlewood's record still stands today.
These six-day endurance contests, or Wobbles, have become an obscure relic of history, but to use it as a backdrop for a historical detective novel had me intrigued.
Wobble to Death is set in 1879 and takes place at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, where promoter Solomon Herriott has organized a Six Day Pedestrian Contest. A footrace in which the competitors have to make "the best of his way on foot," by walking or running, and whoever covers "the greatest distance" in the specified time will be crowned Champion Pedestrian of the World – a title that comes with five-hundred pounds in prize money and a championship belt. This is Endurance Championship Walking (ECW! ECW!! ECW!!!).
There were two classes of competitors and two tracks. On the inner, one-eighth of a mile track moved the Main Eventers, Capt. Erskine Chadwick and Charles Darrell, who were in a two-men race within another race.
The outer, one-seventh of a mile track was reserved for fourteen lesser "heavenly bodies," but the (top) competitors in this second-class of walkers were determined to take a shot at the prize money and title. There's Feargus O'Flaherty, "Half-breed" Williams, Peter "The Scythebearer" Chalk and Billy Reid, but the outer track also has a dark horse. A puny physician, F.H. Mostyn-Smith, who had "the style of an expert in egg-and-spoon racing."
So the six day Go-As-You-Please begins and Lovesey takes his time to set up both the plot and backdrop of the story.
A six day endurance race, set in the late 1800s, is a fascinating and original setting for a detective novel, but Lovesey is not given to romanticizing or decrying the era the story is set in. He simply represents Victorian life as it was at the time. This is most notable in the squalor and even unhygienic living conditions of the lower-ranked pedestrians. The grand Agricultural Hall is filled with fog, gas fumes and the smell of cattle-dung and Herriott is grilled over these conditions by the press, but simply dismisses them by saying that he's not a hotelier and how some of the second-class pedestrians may find it “a pleasurable experience to have any sort of roof above them” – even wagering a bet they would die from "want of exercise" before any of his competitors "dies from taking too much."
On the second day, Darrell collapses on the track and passes away shortly after being taken to his hut. Initially, they believe Darrell, who had walked barefoot with blisters, had contracted tetanus, but a post-mortem reveals there was enough strychnine in his body "to put down a dray-horse." The death of Darrell is followed by that of his personal trainer, Sam Monk, who took his own life by gassing himself in their hut out of remorse. Or so it appears on the surface.
Enter Sgt. Cribb and Constable Thackeray. They conduct their investigation as the race continues and this results in a humorous scene when Thackeray is instructed by Cribb to question Chadwick as he strides along the track, which was greeted with "delighted hoots of derision" from the stands – someone in the crowd even knocked Thackeray's bowler of his head with a well-aimed apple. By this time, Herriott has also dissolved the separate tracks and Chadwick, gentleman pedestrian and champion walker of England, had to walk among the "toughened professionals" of the inner track, which resulted in elbows being buried in his ribs and damaged shins. The gentleman pedestrian began to resemble a battered warhorse.
Sgt. Cribb reasons the solution not from physical clues, inconsistencies in statements or the movement of suspects, but by simply eliminating everyone who could not have done the murders or lacked a motive to do them in. Technically, this can be considered fair play, because there's logic to his reasoning, but this approach made the plot feel rather thin in hindsight. But there was than enough to make up for that.
Regardless, I greatly enjoyed my (brief) time with Wobble to Death. Lovesey wrote a breezily paced, well written and characterized detective novel with an original setting and background that had never been explored before, but the reader is not beaten over the head with historical references to help them remind the story takes place in 1879. This makes the book all the more authentic, which is easier said than done, and demonstrates why the Sgt. Cribb series is so highly regarded in the sub-genre of historical detective fiction. What a pity Lovesey only wrote eight of them.