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Peter Lovesey has a knack for starting his mystery novels prosaically in a way that is highly suspenseful, yet non-transparent. In THE HOUSE SITTER, to be published in June 2003, the eighth of the Superintendent Peter Diamond novels, Diamond's superior, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore is looking for a place to take care of her cat while she's away on holiday. The story then jumps to Mike and Olga Smith and their five-year-old daughter going to a crowded commercial beach to enjoy themselves in the sun. It's difficult to find a place in the car park. Then they must look around for a good spot to rest, one not next to a bunch of lager louts, or howling babies, or public displays of sex. As Mike says to his wife, "Lighten up. This is a day out. We're supposed to relax." But she can't relax when Haley goes off to find playmates; she worries about her getting lost or worse, going too far out in the water.
The day is unusually hot and sunny, and many of the crowd bring "screens" with them that will serve to keep the sun off their faces. The attractive woman next to them is one such person. They can't even see her face until they're up and about, to get coffee or ice cream, or to look for Haley. They talk briefly to her, and later find her seemingly asleep. But when they decide to leave for the day, they look at the woman again, and realize that she is dead. Later it becomes known that she was strangled, and this happened while they were beside her all the time.
So the prosaic beach holiday of the Smiths turns into a murder mystery, but it's more than a case of simple murder. Emma Tysoe was a psychological profiler who had been working on another murder case, that of a famous film director, the first of what Emma had felt would turn into serial murders. Detective Chief Inspector Henrietta Mallin has the jurisdiction over the beach area, but Tysoe came from Bath, which is in Diamond's territory. Diamond acknowledges Mallin's lead in the case, and they pool their efforts, but he is also concerned about the murder case Emma Tysoe had been working on. It's one of those hush-hush things where even he can't get access to the results of the investigation.
However, after his technician unravels enciphered files on Tysoe's computer, Diamond learns that Emma was brought into the mysterious case when one entertainment personality, a movie director, had already been murdered and two others had been named by the murderer as his next victims, highly unusual. Emma's private life is also revealed in her computer files, and she had been sleeping with a man she had known long ago, but whom she didn't particularly care for. She told him she no longer wanted to see him, and he became angry about it, especially when she mentioned that she was having an affair with another man she just met.
Diamond and Malling learn that the other man is the handsome, dashing Jimmy Barneston, the detective chief inspector in charge of the case that Emma had been working on. Being brought into close contact with Barneston, Emma started falling in love with him. So now Barneston, in charge of the secretive film director murder case, becomes also a suspect in the Emma Tysoe murder case.
The police have kept the other two potential victims in protective seclusion. They call the murderer the "Mariner" because he leaves notes with quotes from Coleridge's metaphysical poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." One of the two potential next victims, a young successful professional golfer, is kidnapped by the Mariner while in a police safehouse guarded by two policemen, who are also kidnapped. The policemen are later found on a golf course alive, but the golfer has been murdered. It's obvious to Diamond, Mallin, and the others that the Mariner has a way of getting secret police information, and they are now perplexed as to how to safeguard the next potential victim, a woman who had been a famous entertainer before she married a very rich industrialist, who after six years died.
It is Diamond's idea to use the house of his superior, Georgina, as a hideaway for the wealthy young widow, Anna. Thus Anna becomes the "House Sitter," and Georgina will have someone to take care of her cat while she's away.
The novel demonstrates how true suspense is not just giving rise to a puzzle and then proceeding in a direct line to the solution. THE HOUSE SITTER is a series of hilly episodes, ups and downs, of more preliminary questions and answers leading up to the overall denouement. As usual in a Lovesey mystery, there's humor along with the pathos, such as when handsome, cocksure DCI Jimmy Barneston is told that the same computer files showing his amorous relations with his now murdered profiler, Emma, cannot help but come to the attention of his superiors. Or when Diamond makes elaborate arrangements to install potential victim Anna as the House Sitter for his superior, Georgina, only to find out that Anna is allergic to cats. Or when Emma's colleague, a professor at a university, explains that his specialty in educational studies is masturbation. When the professor, in answering whether he shared an office with the murdered woman, says it was decided that he should have a private office, Diamond comments, "I can't think why."
It's another well-rounded, most entertaining mystery novel for Peter Lovesey, who never fails to delight his readers with something new in familiar dress. THE HOUSE SITTER is just the kind of mystery that I, along with numerous other mystery fans, love to spend time with on a vacation, on when having an evening alone, or, as in the case of my wife, enjoy while taking the Metro to and from work. It makes you want to keep turning those pages, and if you put it down, it gives you the strongest desire to pick it up again as soon as possible. It has that art of true story telling.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, June 2003
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