Mystery novels have a habit of portraying murder as a discrete affair for the middle class. Nowhere is this more apparent than in English mystery novels, as novel writers in England, being a literate caste, usually manage to present the world through tweed-colored spectacles. Peter Lovesey exemplifies this, as his characters always seem to evoke images of tea-sipping old women sharing a well-loved table at their favorite local haunt and recounting stories of life during the blitz. This is a far cry from the real world of murder, which is often one of drunken and drug-crazed rage, teenage street rivalries, or quiet, festering sexual perversion. Lovesey portrays murder in the sleepy doldrums of polite society in which his demographic spends the majority of its civil, conventional life.
Although the context for Lovesey's murders is presented as one that the reader can relate to, Lovesey is adept at writing stories set in bygone periods. On the Edge is set in the postwar England of 1946 where it skillfully portrays the lives of its two heroines. Lovesey convincingly portrays London immediately after the war. He pays careful attention to developing the way in which the two main characters play into the national consciousness of the time, which can almost be described as a sense of angst. This is played out in the sense of divergence one feels when following the lives of Rose and Antonia. Lovesey was a child in London during the war, when one of his most poignant memories was that of his house being hit by a V-1 rocket. Lovesey was at school when this happened, and his two brothers had survived by crawling under a table. Lovesey's heroines spent the war plotting the courses of Royal Air Force attacks on Germany, and part of the post-war angst they felt had to do with returning to traditional female roles.
The strength of "On the Edge" lies in Lovesey's development of Rose and Antonia. It is most interesting to note that both fall into archetypes often ascribed very promiscuous women. Antonia plays the dominant role in the relationship between the two women. Beautiful and headstrong, Antonia was always resented by other women who worked with her during the war for absconding with their boyfriends and husbands. Antonia relishes power, which is why her wartime job as a course plotter for RAF bombing raids suited her vivacious personality. Antonia is the type to prey on people, using her good looks and assertiveness to woo the affections of men. It is therefore understandable that Antonia decides upon the wealthiest man she can find, a Czech-born industrial magnate, to marry her after the war is over. Unfortunately for Antonia, her husband realizes that she isn't to be taken seriously. Witty and good-natured, he blithely ignores Antonia's requests for divorce as he finds his business much more interesting than his pathetically attention-starved wife. Antonia seems incapable of love, and yet she acts as someone who craves love, when in reality she is little more than a socially irrelevant pessimist. It could be argued that if Antonia had lived at the end of the novel, she would have evolved into a character similar to the divorcees on the British comedy series "Absolutely Fabulous," in other words, a self-important ***** with champagne tastes and without any redeeming merit. In fact, her seeming social irrelevancy is what allows her to commit murder, as everyone she knows well is given to ignoring her when she babbles on about killing people.
Rose lacks willpower and her strength lies in perseverance. The daughter of a Vicar, Rose married the RAF pilot who fits the stereotype of a date-rapist. We learn this several pages into the novel, and from it we can infer that Rose has little or no self-esteem. When Rose attends her husband's funeral, we are introduced to her parents as over-protective and as having no deference for their daughter's ability to survive on her own. Rose always plays the role of a subordinate and never wins the respect of her peers, who are always quick to inform her of her husband's drunkenness and philandering.
Throughout the novel, Rose gets a sense of empowerment from her friendship with Antonia. One gets the sense that she idolizes Antonia's life and the way that Antonia conducts herself around men, but that she has never found herself to be capable of selling herself the way that Antonia does. Rose is careful and analytical, yet she is not able to win arguments or people because she second-guesses herself. This leads her to feel guilty, but rather than leading her to assert her self, this guilt fills her with even more self-doubt. Rose toys with the idea of independence but never really achieves it until she is convinced that Antonia is using her. Rose convinces herself that if she had Antonia's fortune, she would manage to live a happy life and that her circumspection would save her from Antonia's dissatisfaction. This is what leads her to befriend Antonia's husband, and also what causes Antonia to resent her. Antonia doesn't see a pupil in Rose, but merely a tagalong to complain to about the imperfections of her better than average life. Antonia resents Rose more and more as Rose seeks to assert her self. As Rose fantasizes about leading the life of an independent woman, Antonia dreams of murdering Rose as a way to thwart a world that in the end refuses to take her seriously. It takes a situation in which Rose is almost assured death at the hands of Antonia for her to turn the tables.
On the Edge is not a mystery novel any more than American Psycho was a mystery novel. Rather, it is a character driven historical fiction about a murderer and her tagalong friend. Murder mysteries are rather formulaic: there is a death or disappearance and certain people are compelled to find out the culprit. Often, there are people that turn up dead or missing over the course of the novel, which enhances the severity of the situation. The reader is lead to keep guessing as to the nature of the events that took place leading up to the murder, which is only revealed at the end. In many murder mysteries, the author has one detective solve the case in a number of different books, in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the television series "Murder, She Wrote." At the end, the killer either dies or is brought to justice. There are usually a large number of peripheral characters, any number of whom could have committed the murder in question.
All of this is true of The Vault. The book is set in the seaside resort city of Bath in contemporary southern England. The tone of the novel is folksy and humorous, reading like a witty anecdote.
It plays off the character of the city and revolves around the actions of detective Peter Diamond. This is the fifth book in Lovesey's Peter Diamond series and is considered to be better than the earlier ones. The first was written in 1991, two years after he had published On the Edge. This series of books intentionally pays tribute to the formula of the classic mystery novel. When asked in an interview why he liked Bath as a setting for his novels, Lovesey replied,
When I wrote the first book of this series, The Last Detective, Bath had not often been used by mystery writers. Since then -- and I don't think it has anything to do with me -- it has been taken as a setting by a bunch of writers, Lizbie Brown,
Margaret Duffy, Christopher Lee and Michael Z. Lewin, who are turning them out at a terrifying rate. Bath is awash with blood and gore. In my case, living near the city for fifteen years has given me a better understanding of this place than any I've known. The size is ideal. I can walk from one location to the next, and I know all the best places to stop for refreshment.
The mystery begins when a hand is found in a vault under the Roman Baths rumored to have been part of a building in which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Initially thought to be a pointless case, the matter attracts the attention of the media and an American literature professor. Lovesey's penchant for character development isn't lost in The Vault, although he does enjoy creating archetypical murder mystery characters in a manner that is both humorous and true to the genre. It becomes obvious that the tie-in between Frankenstein and the murders is more than just a cursory one as the proprietor of the local bookstore is killed soon after she is approached by the Ohioan professor. The professor's perspectives of the locals allows Lovesey's American audience to laugh along with him and wonder if the British are as idiosyncratic as the author portrays them to be.