Beau Death – Peter Lovesey on his new novel
A wrecking ball swings into the roof of an old house near Bath. The people watching are in for a shock. When the dust clears, a skeleton is revealed sitting in the loft dressed in eighteenth century clothes. How did it come to be there?
The police are called to the scene and Peter Diamond, head of the local CID, finds evidence of murder. It’s not a case he welcomes. He is more comfortable with twenty-first century corpses. Worse, there are indications that these are the remains of a famous man, Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, who transformed the city from a backwater into the most fashionable venue in Britain. The media arrive and Diamond feels as if a wrecking ball has swung into his own well-ordered life.
I enjoy finding hidden nuggets from history and working them into a mystery. The first book in the Diamond series, called The Last Detective, featured the true but little-known scandal of Jane Austen’s aunt, arrested in Bath for shoplifting. Another called The Vault was inspired by discovering that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written within a stone’s throw of Bath Abbey.
I have long thought there must be a potential story in Beau Nash and when I started digging I found more of those nuggets than any crime writer could wish for. Five or six biographies have appeared since the first by Oliver Goldsmith, and they contradict each other over several crucial events, particularly towards the end of Nash’s life when his former mistress Juliana Popjoy is said to have returned to live with him and give support in the last years of his life. Untrue. Moreover there is no doubt that he was given a grand funeral in the Abbey, but was he truly buried in a pauper’s grave? Many sources make the claim, but are they reliable or just perpetuating a myth?
The challenge of using historical characters in fiction is to plot the story without distorting true events. This can be difficult, but, when you succeed, the story has an authentic feel that will encourage you and the reader to believe. I learned this some years ago when writing a series featuring Albert Edward, Prince of Wales – Bertie to his family – as a self-appointed amateur detective. In the first, Bertie and the Tinman, he investigates the strange death of the jockey Fred Archer. Of course the concept was fiction, but there were real historical circumstances that helped me believe it could have happened. Archer had been the royal jockey. Bertie’s was the largest wreath on the coffin. Archer had died in mysterious, intriguing circumstances, putting a silver gun to his head and saying ‘Are they coming?’ before pulling the trigger. Bertie would surely have wanted to know more after reading reports of the inquest, as I did. And the fact that Bertie had time on his hands while waiting to be king gave him the opportunity to indulge in all sorts of escapades. I studied the Court Circular published in The Times to make sure he was in the country and available to start his investigation. I involved the people around him, Princess Alexandra, and Francis Knollys, the courtier he most trusted. The premise of Bertie as a not-very-competent detective was up and running.
Moving on to Beau Death, I didn’t want to write the sort of story in which the detective chooses to investigate a real historical mystery from his hospital bed. That had already been done brilliantly by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time and again by Colin Dexter in The Wench is Dead. Instead I pictured my detective and his team in action on the streets of Bath, starting at the crime scene, the terraced eighteenth century house where the skeleton was found. What other clues remained to be discovered? After the bones were removed there was sure to be some kind of forensic examination of them. What else would Diamond learn about the cause of death?
Once the mechanics of the investigation were started I could imagine how living people became involved. Who were the most recent tenants of the house and why hadn’t anyone looked in the loft in three hundred years? Who was the forensic anthropologist assigned to the case? What about the police getting the advice of an expert on Beau Nash who was currently writing a biography?
Inevitably in one of Diamond’s cases there would be distractions. The police are used to multi-tasking. A modern murder must take place apparently unrelated to the main investigation. Diamond would be compelled to divide his attention and yet in a strange way, Beau Nash would insist on the truth about his death being given priority – to the extent that he would become a character in the story as real as any of the living suspects – just as Nash was getting into my own head and insisting that this story be written.
Yes, it became personal. His is a rather touching story, the Welsh boy who gets to Oxford and is sent down, has a short unhappy time in the army, trains as a lawyer and never practises, yet who discovers his real talent is the staging of social events. He finds his way to Bath as assistant to the Master of Ceremonies at the assembly rooms and soon takes over and is a stunning success. In no time he is known as the King of Bath. His effect on the place is phenomenal. He makes it the must-visit place for the rich and famous. Grand buildings are erected. This handsome Georgian city owes its reputation to Beau Nash.
Yet there was a reckoning. Having created a mecca for socialites and gamblers, an eighteenth century Las Vegas, but far more elegant, he is caught taking a cut of the profits when everyone supposed he was above such things, the arbiter of good taste, the architect of the rules by which the city is run.
Beau Nash is ruined and lives out his last days in disgrace, a prime candidate for a Beau death and my latest whodunnit.
Find out more about Peter’s books here.