Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
First there was George Smiley, now there is DI William Trave – sleuth with a problem wife. That the former Mrs Trave would like to become the new wife of diamond merchant Titus Osman, which promises the chatelainage of Blackwater Hall and its acres of beautiful Oxfordshire countryside, must be agony for anyone who still loves her, it must be more painful still if that lover thought that the prospective husband had some hand in murder. If that lover were a detective inspector in the Oxfordshire force who found it difficult to hide his doubts from both his subordinates and his superiors, then said lover’s difficulties would be great indeed.
A police officer with doubts would have problems, however The King of Diamonds is set between 1958 and 1961, and Inspector Trave’s problems are as nothing to those of David Swain, who has already been fitted up for murder once, and is certain to be hanged should he be convicted of a second murder. The trouble is – David Swain is at Blackwater Hall both times someone is shot dead, and both deaths are murder. It is as if he cannot keep away, or someone does not want him to keep away.
Osman has brought his diamond wealth from Antwerp. He has also brought some peculiar people with him, as well as his unhappy niece, and her two boyfriends, though one of those boyfriends is a corpse before the novel begins, and the other is David Swain. Trave also knows that Osman’s friends outside the Hall are unattractive too – confidence men and pimps he has had opportunity to arrest.
Trave’s character fault, though, makes him think that a man with dubious companions must himself be criminal, which means that he has little defence when his superiors turn on him for a potential abuse of process. Fortunately, he has made enough of an impression on his junior that some work continues and history is explored. In 1960 other people were making investigations of use to Trave. Today’s events have their origins in the abuses of the war, and the way that Belgium was treated then.
The King of Diamonds is flawed, not one thing (police procedural, say, or courtroom drama), nor thriller. The investigations of character, oddly of rather minor women such as Vanessa Trave or David Swain’s mother, seem irrelevant. And most annoyingly, anachronisms spoil the story – cans of Special Brew being smuggled into prison in 1960, an officer being addressed as “Detective Clayton”, the use of the word “holocaust”, even a condemned prisoner being sent back to Oxford Prison for execution, when none had been performed there since 1952. A quick check shows that the same criticisms have been made of Tolkien’s previous two novels. I found that The King of Diamonds failed to sparkle.