BOOK REVIEW / Fat cop seeks mute kid: Diamond solitaire - Peter Lovesey: Little, Brown pounds 14.99

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AFTER 20 years or so of period mysteries, most notably the series starring beaky Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb, Peter Lovesey recently tried his hand at a contemporary setting with The Last Detective, presumably with enough success to justify this second outing. Lovesey's hero, ex-copper Peter Diamond, is on the face of it perfectly suited to the times, being middle-aged, unemployed and massively overweight. He lives in a scruffy basement in Kensington with his long-suffering wife Stephanie, scanning the job ads and indulging in some notably unsuccessful DIY.

Diamond is in fact twice unemployed; he left the Avon and Somerset CID after a run-in with the Assistant Chief Constable, and the opening of Diamond Solitaire finds him about to be fired from his job as a security guard, the after-hours discovery of a mute Japanese child in the furniture department of Harrods having done nothing for his long-term

career prospect with that august institution. They're perfectly happy to provide him with a reference, of course, only not as a security guard, and there's not much else an ex-copper can do.

Except, of course, settle down to some serious wondering about the little Japanese girl, who she is, why she doesn't speak and what she was doing causing major security alerts in Harrods. He pulls off the difficult feat of insinuating himself into the children's home where the child, by now called Naomi, is being cared for. The combination of lumbering charm, cheek and residual officer-of-the- law authority with which he manages this comes in handy on quite a number of occasions. It's not long, naturally before a little hand is being slipped trustingly into his.

There is another strand to the story, which rather improbably involves a randy widow and a wavering priest before settling down to concentrate on an American pharmaceutical company on the skids, a wonder-drug which restores brain-cells, and the Mafia. The two strands begin to come together when Naomi is kidnapped from the children's home, and Diamond finds himself setting off on a chase to Tokyo via Manhattan, solving the case with the aid of New York's finest (and most sceptical), and a mighty Sumo wrestler's Gold Card.

I don't read English mysteries much - somehow they don't seem as grown-up as their American counterparts. Given the choice I would go for American writers, or failing that, hard- boiled Englishmen like John Milne, John Harvey or the ineffable Derek Raymond. I have always tended to lump Lovesey along with the likes of Simon Brett or Jonathan Gash as a producer of amiable time-passers, holiday-cottage fare which lacks the gritty depth of an Elmore Leonard or a James Crumley. A case of preferring Wild Turkey to Croft's Original, you might say: a simple-minded and unfair distinction, no doubt, but there it is.

So it is with a certain embarrassment that I have to confess to being unable to put Diamond Solitaire down. I spent a lot of time during the first half wondering irritably how Lovesey was going to mesh his two strands, knowing only that they would mesh. But somewhere around half-way, around the point at which we stick with Diamond from one chapter to the next, the thing began to grip and it was phone-off-the-hook time.

Lovesey really does turn a neat plot, and if I wasn't exactly stunned by any particular revelation, neither did I feel that I'd been cheated anywhere along the line. Diamond is light enough on his feet to earn the respect of the mighty Sumo wrestler, and promises to have legs as a character, all 18 irascible stone of him. It will take a lot more than this to wean me off the Wild Turkey, but it's a damn fine glass of sherry nevertheless.