PETER DICKINSON – The Lively Dead.

Pantheon, paperback reprint; 1982. Hardcover editions: [UK] Hodder & Stoughton, 1975; [US] Pantheon, 1975. Other paperback editions: Avon 33811, US, August 1977; Mysterious Press/Arrow, UK, 1988 (shown).


   Here’s another author about whom I can say I never read one of his books until now. In crime fiction circles he’s probably best known for his Superintendent Pibble novels, of which there were six, published between 1969 and 1976, but of which, even though it’s of the right time period, this however is not one.

   Dickinson, by the way, was born in 1927 and is still active as a writer. You can find his biography online here, and a link at the bottom of that page will take you to a complete bibliography, so if you’re interested, there’s no need for me to reproduce it as part of this review. His most recent work as been poetry and books for young adults, the latter usually having a strong fantasy component.

   As for The Lively Dead, there is a lot I can tell you about it – and some I can’t, and if I can, I’ll let you later why. We meet the primary protagonist, Lydia Timms (we later learn she is Lady Lydia) attacking a joist with a crowbar and inspecting the wood for rot in the basement of the London boarding house she and her husband live in and own, then rushing up the stair to fix the duplicating machine that the ineffectual old men of the exiled Lavonian government have in their rooms and offices in the upper two floors (grandfathered in when the Timmses arrived).

   Richard, her husband, has had a recent breakdown but is now on the road to recovery and is studying furiously for his law exams; her small son Dickie is autistic, but is a marvel with recreating battles with small toys and other paraphernalia. He also knows Morse code better than he can read.

   Recently dead is Mrs Newberry, who also lived in the building and was the cleaner for Mr Obb and the others on the top floors. Mrs Newbury’s notorious daughter (and only heir) Procne is currently in jail for what we easily perceive as being high-level prostitution reasons. At any rate, there is continued interest in her (and her well-being) from several sides, not all of which make themselves known right away.

   Mrs Newberry is the key to everything, as it happens. Even though given a proper burial at some time during the events of the first two chapters, she turns up again circa page 110, when a body is found in the Timms’s back yard. It is Mrs Newberry.


   Superintendent Austen investigates, and in his arrogant fashion (thinks Lydia) manages to antagonize her so greatly that she will not (she says can not) answer his questions.

   It is up to her, then, to solve the case, as greatly muddled as it more and more becomes, at considerable risk to herself and Dickie. Somehow or another there is yet another malice-supplying factor that enters in. I do not believe that at the end I had indeed straightened them all out.

   What carries the day, if the detection is weak, is the beautiful, humorous and picturesque writing. Picking a page at random, and spotting a portion with the delightful Dickie in it (he is seven), here’s an example. It’s taken out of context, of course, but this is Lydia and Dickie as they are checking out Mrs Newberry’s room on page 61:

    … The strange smell seemed strongest in the corner by the wardrobe.

    “Are you smelling for treasure?” said Dickie.

    “I don’t know. Come here and see what you think.”

    At once he was on his hands and knees beside her, sniffing like a snuff-addict, rump taut.

    “Dead man’s chest,” he said in a puzzled voice.

    (One of Richard’s family traditions was that children with colds must have their chests rubbed with Vick. During the process the adult who was rubbing had to sing the pirates’ catch from Treasure Island. This mightn’t help the child to get better, but it was the Right Thing to do.)

    “Yes, it does smell a bit like that,” said Lydia. “It seems stronger higher up. Oh, look!”

   Neither Lydia nor Superintendent seem to have ever made another appearance, unfortunately in regard to the former, never so much concerning the latter. Will I read another book by Peter Dickinson? Indeed, yes, I will.