Sunday, October 21, 2018

Captive Witness

"Wax on, wax off"
"The Karate Kid"

The problem with listening to audio dramas before sleeping is that I always fall asleep halfway through.

The murder on Josiah Perceval, assistant at a photograph studio, was quickly solved when Miriam Cromer, wife of the society photographer Howard Cromer, confessed fully to the crime. The woman was being blackmailed over some indecent photographs taken from her past, and eventually, she thought it would wiser to poison the decanter of wine with potassium cyanide than to keep on paying. Miriam is now on death row, with just a few weeks until her execution, when a photograph is sent to the Home Office, which cast doubt upon Miriam's story: the new facts revealed by this photograph suggest that Miriam couldn't have obtained the potassium cyanide to commit the murder. Sergeant Cribb of London's Criminal Investigation Department and his assistant Constable Thackery are ordered to figure out what the real deal is behind Miriam's confession in the radio drama Waxwork (1987), based on the same-titled 1978 novel.

A few months ago, I reviewed Peter Lovesey's A Case of Spirits, a novel in the Sergeant Cribb series. While I hadn't given the Victorian mystery series much attention or thought until then, it's been quite well received in general: the novel series has been adapted as a television series (Cribb), and six of the eight novels have also adapted for the radio by the BBC. I decided to try out the radio drama adaptation of Waxwork, because I really like audio dramas, and I had heard good things about this particular story. The original novel is at the moment the last of the Sergeant Cribb novels by the way, but no prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy this story.

I think that Waxwork is a good example of a good story, that manages to be quite entertaining general even if the core mystery plot is rather limited in range and originality. If you look solely at the mystery parts of Waxwork, you'll have to look really closely before you come across truly original elements, as so many bits and pieces of the story feel so familiar. The method by which the true murderer managed to snatch the potassium cyanide as explained by Cribb for example is an extremely common concept, and it's not like it's been repackaged into something more surprising. The true goal of Miriam's confession ultimately builds on a trope that is often seen in mystery fiction. So looking purely at the mystery plot, I'm afraid that Waxwork has little originality to offer. With a rather limited cast of characters and a fairly small problem (the poisoning), Waxwork is not a mystery story to really delve into for a mental challenge.

That said though, Waxwork works as a yarn. As in A Case of Spirits, the Victorian background is always nothing but the background: unlike some stories that like to remind you you're reading a Victorian story every single sentence, Lovesey is far better at letting his background speak for itself. Concepts like society photographs, class society, Newgate Prison and the hangman do date the story and mix well with the mystery plot, but it's not like you're reading a Wikipedia entry about Victorian Britain which some historical novels sometimes tend to turn into. The result is a pleasant experience, that combined with the light comedy that especially derives from Constable Thackery's scenes is fun to listen to.

I have not read the original Waxwork by the way, so I can't comment on how faithful (or not) this radio adaptation is. I'm just going to guess/assume that the story here is mostly the same as the novel, and not that we have a completely different culprit or type of murderer.

Waxwork is on the whole an okay mystery story, with the emphasis on story. As a mystery, there's just too little that is truly original, and much of the core plot will feel familiar one way or another. Combined with the Victorian setting and the story though, Waxwork is enjoyable enough. I enjoyed A Case of Spirits much better as a mystery story, but I think I'll keep on trying this series in the future too, be it in novel, audio or television drama form.


  1. Maybe the audio version was different from the book because I don't recognize it from your description. I thought well enough of the book to put it on my top 20 list of all-time best mysteries. It picked up a Silver Dagger Award in Great Britain for 1978. The TV version was very well acted and consistent with the book.

    1. I might try either the TV or the book again then at some later stage.

  2. Even Barzun and Taylor gave it high praise.