Celebrating Detective Pibble of the Yard

4 December 2016

Brilliantly imaginative…wonderfully convincing. Observer

A first-class detective story by any standards…excellent, gripping, intelligent and original. Times Literary Supplement

A classical detective story (and a damn good one). The Times

Probably the most splendid debut in crime fiction for several years. Edmund Crispin writing in the Sunday Times

Reading the glowing reviews of Peter’s first crime novel, The Glass-sided Ants Nest (published in the UK as Skin Deep for reasons Peter explains on the book’s page), it is possibly not surprising that it went on to win the Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger Award that year (1968).

This was the introduction of Peter’s unusual detective, Superintendent Pibble of the Yard (whom Christopher Fowler, writing in The Independent described as “…an earthy investigator who does his best thinking in the pub, with ‘good bitter, fresh bread, mousetrap, bangers‘“).

Peter went on to write five more successful Pibble crime novels. The second of the series, The Old English Peep-Show (A Pride of Heroes in the UK) also won the CWA Golden Dagger in 1969 – making Peter the first crime novelist to win the coveted Golden Dagger for consecutive novels. H.R. F. Keating (author of the popular Inspector Ghote novels) observed in his article in Mystery Scene Magazine (2005):

“…Dickinson’s multifarious imagination, however, is not his only gift to crime fiction. He so much liked detective stories that, during his seventeen years on the staff of that now defunct but once essential magazine Punch, he regularly reviewed the then still highly popular genre. In his own books, he has said, his aim was to keep closely to the play-fair rules, the puzzle solved by intelligence, the clues scrupulously present however disguised. But to those clues he brought his own frolicking style. As you read The Lizard in the Cup, where Superintendent Pibble, protagonist of the first five Dickinson books, is wandering around a nursing home after he has had a mysterious breakdown, you come across a fleeting reference to the kitchen preparing that former staple of British school fare, roly-poly pudding. You smile, perhaps. But later when the enticing odour enters Pibble’s nostrils once more, he takes note, while the reader is busy smiling, of the fact that leads him to solve the crime. Only Dickinson could do that, true detection cunningly made to look like no more than an amusing social detail from past times.”

In later years, Peter was curiously diffident about the Pibble mysteries which started his career as a crime-writer. I asked him once where he’d got the name of his detective. “From a phone book” was all he would say (he was very careful about not giving his characters names or obvious characteristics which could be connected with anyone he actually knew). Writing about A Pride of Heroes for his website, all he would say was: “ A baroque spoof — I can’t imagine how I thought I could get away with it.” However, his children remember how much he enjoyed writing the novels at the time – the challenge of making a mystery work. His son, John, recalled at Peter’s memorial that “…Often he’d start with just an idea, and no notion of where it would take him. He said he could write a third of a murder novel without knowing who had killed whom or why.”

Peter’s crime novels are classics of their time – long before mobile phones, internet and 24hr news – and intriguing in so many ways. Deservedly celebrated in their day, “…the Pibble mysteries are enormous fun…” (Christopher Fowler again). They are all available from Open Road Media as ebooks (and can be ordered in print editions from retailers).

Philippa Dickinson

The James Pibble Mysteries

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