Culture

Murder in Half-Marathon: Peter Lovesey’s “The Finisher”

Author Peter Lovesey dreams of being a great runner. His passion for running makes him a major crime novelist, and an important historian of the sport.

Peter Lovesey is one of the world’s best crime novelists, and one of the best historians of running. He is also a fantasist about running who hasn’t run since high school but confesses that he has a recurring dream of running a marathon. The celebrated English author brought his two official lives and his one secret life together to create his latest whodunnit crime novel, The Finisherreleased on August 4.

The Finisher novel
Photo: Penguin Random House

The narrative spine of Lovesey’s new story is an invented mass half-marathon in the English city of Bath. The course loops around the historic city with as many twists and hazards as Lovesey’s plot, including a mile through a creepy disused rail tunnel that is featured on one version of the book’s cover. Some runners in the field of five thousand never finish. That’s all I am allowed to reveal about a story full of surprises, vivid running details, and human interest. A young woman police officer spends hours studying CCTV footage of the race, and reflects, “We can look at all these runners, and we have no idea of the stories behind them.”

Lovesey has been studying runners, and imaginatively entering into their lives, since his father took him to see the London Olympics in 1948.

“My idols were all athletes, and as a boy I empathised with them, just as a writer gets inside the characters featuring in his books. In its most extreme form, when I was seventeen, I felt I actually ran the marathon with Jim Peters in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. When he collapsed from dehydration, after almost tragic efforts to finish, I was ill myself, and took to bed for two days, unable to get the disappointment out of my head,” Lovesey said by email from England this week.

As a boy, he longed to emulate his running heroes, with Peters, Emil Zatopek, Fanny Blankers-Koen, and Chris Chataway topping the list. But his own talent did not measure up.

“I staggered in last in the school cross-country. I would dearly like to run, but I’m pathologically incapable of doing it. I get chronic stitch. I’m not even a fun-runner. But I have a recurring dream of competing in a marathon. I dream I’m doing well, feeling good and confident that I’ll finish in record time, but I never get there before I wake up. It’s still a good dream,” he revealed.

After studying English literature at Reading University, and working as a lecturer, Lovesey found a different way to fulfill his fantasy, by writing about running. Fascinated by its history, in his early thirties he researched and wrote one of the classic running books, The Kings of Distance (1968). Its five profiles portray Deerfoot, Walter George, Alf Shrubb, Paavo Nurmi, and Emil Zatopek as fully realized and convincing human beings, and, in each case, define the source of their greatness.

Lovesey adapted those character insights for his first popular fiction. Wobble to Death (1970) is an atmospheric murder mystery set in a draughty manure-strewn agricultural hall, venue of an indoor endurance race in London’s Jack-the-Ripper era. Those “go as you please” six-day pedestrian races were called “wobbles” because that’s what six days’ walking/running with almost no sleep does to you. The crowds and the bookmakers loved it. Readers also loved the shrewd and unpretentious late-Victorian detective, Sergeant Cribb, who went on to solve eight Lovesey mysteries, and star in a television series. You can watch Wobble to Death on Youtube, and a special fiftieth anniversary collectors’ edition of the novel will be published in October (Soho Press in USA).

Wobble to Death Book
Photo: Penguin Random House

Lovesey became a celebrated author of crime fiction, more than forty novels earning him major awards both sides of the Atlantic. He also produced seminal work in the history of track athletics. His Official Centenary History of the Amateur Athletic Association (1979) is a much livelier read than that title suggests, and he was one of the three editors for the magisterial An Athletics Compendium (2001), which lists every book ever published about track or running to that date. Most recently, he did some sleuthing, as one of three researchers who solved the mystery of Violet Piercy, a London stage performer of the 1920s-30s, who is wrongly placed at the top of many lists as supposedly the first holder of the women’s marathon world record.

Lovesey was a family friend of Harold Abrahams, the British sprint gold medalist at the 1924 Olympics. When Abrahams’ story was made into the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire, Lovesey was called in as consultant.

Lovesey is still a track fan, although his passion became qualified when money and drugs tainted the sport. He wrote the best-selling novel Goldengirl  (1977, under the pen name Peter Lear) to expose what he calls “the moneymen, crooks and cranks who exploit the unfortunate athlete.” Goldengirl was filmed by Hollywood, with such stars as James Coburn, Lesley Caron, and Susan Anton, but the boycott of the Moscow Olympics kept it from general release.  Now Lovesey’s fan passion has mainly turned to road running.

Golden Girl movie poster

“I don’t much enjoy the travelling circus that is modern athletics at the top level. Pacemakers, mascots, music, ballyhoo, and the same small group of performers take away the pleasure of watching genuine races with their own drama. I still enjoy road races and seeing how they develop,” he said this week.

In an Afterword to The Finisher, Lovesey explains that running is so important to him, at 83, that he decided to return to it as his setting for the new novel, fifty years after his debut with Wobble to Death. His runners this time are ordinary citizens, whose quirks and motivations Lovesey captures with empathy. One has a room decorated with a line of runners like a Greek frieze. Schoolteacher Maeve has never run before, but finds herself committed as a charity runner, and starts training. She learns there is more in it for herself than she ever guessed.

“Setting goals and achieving them gave her more than mere confidence. It was the antidote to long-held insecurities, those setbacks in her romantic life and her day job that could bring on depression.” Maeve suffers the usual runner problems – uneven paving, getting lost, skateboarders, dogs – but after weeks of plodding she also discovers the joy of the breakthrough.

“She’d covered the last mile and a half without any recollection of doing it. What a boost. On the way back she took a detour and managed six miles for the first time.”

Don’t worry, Maeve doesn’t get murdered.