Monday, July 02, 2007

One Foot in the Grave - Peter Dickinson

First published 1979; cover shown is the 1981 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition. Cover design by Neil Stuart; cover photograph by Irvin Cook. 233 pages.

Dickinson wrote a series of mystery novels during the 1960s and 70s featuring Detective Superintendent Jimmy Pibble. This is a novel written years after the series ended: Jimmy is now 64 and a recent widower. After suffering a massive stroke he was admitted to a luxury nursing home in the English countryside, paid for by a rich friend who owes his life to Jimmy.

The story opens with Jimmy painstakingly putting his plan of suicide into action. He struggles to pull his clothes on, fighting against the frequent blackouts and the numbness of his legs. Then he struggles out of the home, having spent weeks working out which door is locked when, and the easiest "escape" route. Fighting his way through the wind and dark, Jimmy staggers and then crawls up, up, up the stairs of the Tower. He is aiming for the top, so he can jump... but when he bumps into a man with the back of his head missing along the way, his plan of suicide dies its own death.

Back in his bed, Jimmy is visited by a former colleague, Chief Superintendent Mike Crewe. Theories for the murder vary widely. The dead man, a bodyguard for an ex-con residing in the home, was known to be sleeping his way through the nurses. Jenny, Jimmy's nurse - a friendly woman in her late-20s who is strangely attracted to Jimmy despite the 37 year age gap - may well have committed the killing, if only to protect another nurse, Maisie. Then there's Mr X, the ex-con, due to give evidence against a host of criminals. The killing could easily be linked to him.

Jimmy is in the perfect position to do his own sleuthing, and as his legs and general health improves, he discovers that a new resident in the home was a very big name in the criminal world back in the old days. Her presence in the home cannot be a coincidence. He also discovers that Maisie - and his beloved Jenny - were both in the Tower on the night of the murder. When he finally does unravel the clues and discover the truth (which is slightly hard to swallow), the killer has no qualms about keeping Jimmy's mouth shut... permanently.

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