A “wobble,” in the London sporting world of 1879, is a several-day-long test of endurance in which several “pedestrians” (the word, as used here, connotes a brotherhood of noble Olympians) travel around an indoor track, accumulating lap after lap while paying spectators toss out cheers, jeers, and the occasional piece of rotting produce. Contestants run, walk, or gallop, according to their talents and their whims, and either they fall by the wayside at some point or they manage to stumble along until a predetermined stop time. By modern standards, it doesn’t seem like much of a race; such thrills as it offers are few and far between. But Victorian Englishmen take their entertainment where they can find it—and, in the case of this fictional wobble, there are a couple of murders to liven things up.
The first of those killings claims the life of Charles Darrell, an up-and-coming pedestrian from the striving class. Going into the second day of a weekling race at Agricultural Hall, in London’s East End, Darrell had proven to be a worthy rival to Captain Erskine Chadwick, a gentry-class fellow who had been the early favorite in the contest. But then Darrell succumbs to strychnine poisoning. To keep himself alert and on track, he had routinely ingested a beverage laced with strychnine, and apparently someone had slipped an extra-high dose of that stuff into his regular concoction. Suspects in the case include Darrell’s wife, Cora, who was wont to invite other men into her parlor once she know that her husband was at work and on the run, so to speak; his trainer, Sam Monk, who was among Cora’s paramours; and various men in or around the contest who might have bet money that Chadwick, rather than Darrell, would wobble his way to triumph. A follow-up murder, evidently committed in order to silence a possible witness, complicates the matter for Sergeant Cribb, the investigating officer whom Scotland Yard has put on the case.
Lovesey, in this maiden effort both for himself and for Cribb, takes the spatially and temporally limited setting of a wobble and turns it into a richly decorated panorama of class, culture, and crime. Period details, rather than plotting, are what supply the novel’s chief source of interest. There are a few decent clues, and Cribb (together with his long-suffering sidekick, Constable Thackeray) does a bit of decent work with them. But the puzzle to be solved is, well, somewhat pedestrian.