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by Peter Lovesey
Soho Constable, October 2008
240 pages
ISBN: 1569475245

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Sergeant Cribb is criticized by his superiors for having too many unsolved crimes on his books and urged to followed more innovative methods, as they do in France. Therefore when a headless man is discovered, Cribb decides this investigation should follow untraditional paths. The victim has scars, bruises and other injuries, which leads Cribb to believe the man was a bare-knuckle fighter.

Even though bare-knuckle boxing was outlawed in Victorian England at the time this story takes place, it is still practised in secret and still draws a large crowd. As the fans of this sport are unlikely to speak to the police or let anything slip, Cribb decides to send a man undercover. Cribb receives a tip that their murder victim trained at Radstock Hall and that the management at Radstock had a deadly policy regarding fighters who fail - they are murdered. He enlists young Constable Henry Jago for his undercover mission, without receiving permission from his superiors. This means that if Jago is caught, he can be arrested for his activities.

At Radstock Hall, Jago finds himself under the eye of Mrs Vilbart. Even though she is not the trainer, she takes a close interest in her fighters. While Jago is forced to go through harsh training including purging and pickling his hands in vinegar, Cribb attempts to get more details with the aid of his assistant Constable Thackeray. When another fighter leaves Radstock Hall, the situation becomes more dangerous. Cribb and Jago must find the evidence they need to catch a killer before Jago is forced into the ring to risk death in a competition.

THE DETECTIVE WORE SILK DRAWERS focuses more on pugilism than on the murder, the criminal investigation or the police. In fact, I now have a much more detailed understanding of the sport and the training than I ever would have wanted. It is probably hypocritical of me, but I find the details about pugilism more unsettling than the most gruesome murder scene. The only explanation I can find is that the murder victim does not willing die in such a manner, while a pugilist willingly takes on this training and the potentially deadly fights.

While I looked forward to trying the Sergeant Cribb series, I was ultimately disappointed. This was the second book Lovesey published and it is perhaps showing its age, as it is close to forty years old. It lacks the flair and character development that is apparent in Lovesey's later mysteries the Hen Mallin and the Peter Diamond series. Instead of flair, this series pokes fun at Victorian society without showing meaning, intelligence or depth. Based on his other series, one would expect Lovesey to use more sophisticated humor rather than focus on absurdities and irresponsible behavior to make his point. Whether contemporary readers will find Lovesey's earliest work sufficiently entertaining to justify Soho's decision to bring them out again remains to be seen.

Reviewed by Sarah Dudley, February 2009

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