Thursday, March 06, 2008

Peter Robinson and Inspector Banks

Circumstances have only permitted light reading in the last few days and I was in the mood for some solid detective fiction, so I’ve spent some time in the company of Peter Robinson’s excellent series of police-procedural novels featuring the complex Inspector Banks. The local Crossword bookstore has a number of Robinson omnibuses, each one collecting two of the Inspector Banks novels, on sale – they’re priced at just Rs 200 each, very good value for money, and I’ve picked up most of them.

I read my first Robinson, Aftermath, a few years ago (in fact this was one of the first books I reviewed for a print publication) and was very impressed by it. The title has a double-meaning, the immediately obvious one being that it’s about an investigation that takes place after a notorious serial killer has been unmasked (the suspense in this case arising from the discovery of bodies that can’t all be identified, and from the question of whether the killer’s wife was complicit in his crimes, and to what extent). The less obvious meaning of the title, as we learn late in the book, is that almost everything that happens here can be viewed as the bleak aftermath of another, much older crime, which has caused the lives of the people involved to spiral endlessly into ever-darker places.

Aftermath was a reminder that a good detective tale doesn’t require a thrill a minute. There are no shocking revelations; so meticulous is the investigation that nearly every possibility is set before the reader well before the denouement, and what surprises remain come from minor twists. What made the book so effective were Robinson’s storytelling skills and pithy character sketches, his attention to the details of police-work and the way he creates a very real sense of human tragedy. One of his biggest strengths as a writer is the way he evokes the atmosphere of small-town England through his fictional Eastvale: the Yorkshire dales and moors, the market square and the pubs, the local gossip, the unexpected glimpses of conservatism, the youngsters with stars in their eyes wanting to escape this quiet setting and move to a big city, the banter between policemen and small-time criminals, and the internal politics in the police department. And the drystone walls, which can provide a stress-busting hobby for a police chief on the verge of retirement – but can also double up as a concealment site for a murderer.

The books I’ve read in the past few days have been in chronological order, beginning with Gallows View (1987), which introduces Alan Banks, a 36-year-old Detective Chief Inspector who has recently moved with his wife and children from London to Eastvale. Banks, we soon learn, is a man with a wide range of interests, especially in classical music and literature; we are told of him and his wife Sandra that “neither was an academic or intellectual, but both pursued self-education with an urgency often found in bright working-class people who hadn’t had culture thrust down their throats from the cradle onward”. He is a man of many moods, as we discover with each successive book – moods that are determined by such things as the quality of the pint at a newly opened pub, or the progress of his efforts to cut down on smoking. He’s also insightful about human nature and critical of his own occasional failings as a husband and father. But most importantly, he’s a bloody good copper, with a knack for unconventional methods and for risk-taking.

Gallows View is one of the cosiest entries in the series (like Banks coming to terms with the different, much more personal nature of crime in small towns, Robinson was probably finding his feet in the genre). There’s a little map that gives us the basic layout of Eastvale, and the three converging plot strands involve a peeping tom, the accidental killing of an old woman, and youngsters breaking into homes for valuables that can be sold in the grey market. It’s all very quaint and small-scale at this point, but the later books get more expansive, often moving beyond the town’s borders and dealing with more craftily plotted crimes. Robinson’s writing also becomes more assured and ambitious, culminating in the outstanding In a Dry Season, which moves between a modern-day investigation and a narrative from the World War II days.

At their best, the Inspector Banks books combine the most satisfying qualities of genre fiction and literary fiction (note: I’m not very interested in these classifications myself, but I’m referring to their conventional definitions). These are fast-paced, conversation-driven books that don’t spend too much time on description – though that’s partly because Robinson is gifted enough a writer to convey a lot about a person or a setting in very few words – but they are also literate, reflective and gritty. Every now and again, a genre cliché does intrude (“I’m a snowball running down the hill, picking up dirt so you can sit safe and warm at home,” Banks tells someone at one point, though knowing him you have to wonder if he’s being a little sardonic), but those are exceptions rather than the norm.

Reading the books chronologically, it’s also possible to appreciate the technological changes that occurred between the late 1980s and 2003 (that’s when The Summer that Never Was, the last of the books I’ve read, was written) and the way they facilitated both police investigations and criminal activities. Cellphones make an appearance, the Internet becomes a vital part of life, even in this laidback setting (one of the novels, Cold is the Grave, begins with a chief constable discovering a photo of his runaway daughter on a porn website and hiring Banks to discreetly track her down), and as the cosy, Miss Marple-ish mood of the first book becomes a distant memory, one gets a sense of irrevocable change in the boondocks. If Banks were to return to London today, he might find that things aren't all that different.

If you’re a fan of the genre and you haven’t read Robinson yet, get started immediately. It’s probably best to read Gallows View first, just for the introduction to Banks and his world, but after that it isn’t imperative to read the books in order. (Especially recommended: Dead Right and In a Dry Season.)

P.S. More on Peter Robinson here.


  1. Great post. It will make me get going on Peter Robinson. To digress, have you read James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels ? His prose rocks.

  2. good post. I am a great fan of Robinson. Wednesday's child is my favourite. It literally ends in the last page. its that gripping. Robinson is very approachable too. Try sending him an email on his site. most of the novels are available on mobipocket ebook format. try searching on "peter robinson" - happy reading!

  3. Are you into the Italian mysteries at all? Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin (RIP) or even Camillieri? Would love to read you on them one of these days if so. In the meantime, will certainly hunt down Peter Robinson. What fun to have a whole series to look forward to!

  4. Krishnan, Anonymous: no, haven't read Burke, Leon, Dibdin or Camillieri - in fact, come to think of it I've read very little in the genre and need to catch up on some of the good stuff. Incidentally, I've also recently come across the acclaimed Martin Beck series of police procedurals written by the Swedish couple Sjöwall-Wahlöö in the 1970s. Looks promising.

    Shaunak: thanks for the link. Wednesday's Child is among the 3-4 Robinsons I haven't read yet.

  5. not related but could you review edith wharton's 'the age of innocence' in your blog some time? i love the book, and i want to know what you think of it, and the martin scorcese film too.

    please please, treat it as a request from a very dedicated reader of your blog.

  6. Tanya: thanks, but I barely have time these days to do my official work, so writing blog posts on request is a bit difficult! As it happens, I haven't read the Wharton (it's been high on my reading list for a long time, but you know how these things go). I'm a fan of the film version - thought it was among Scorsese's most underrated works and was especially impressed by Daniel Day-Lewis's Newland Archer - but I last saw it many years ago, and I wouldn't be able to do a proper review based on such an old viewing.

  7. I actually went and picked up a couple of those omnibuses you recco'd because this is one of my favourite genres. Just finished the first book (Gallows View) and am feeling a trifle disappointed. There are much better police procedurals out there. Maybe he gets better as he goes along?

  8. There are much better police procedurals out there.

    Anon: recos please? I'm not too familiar with the genre, so maybe my standards for police procedurals are lower.

  9. Err... I'm also the first anon in this comment section, so that list largely covers my choices. Coincidentally, all three overlap with the sub-genre, Italian mysteries. Dibdin is definitely top of the bunch for me, esp the first few. Ratking, Vendetta, Cabal(the best) are great and he seemed to be getting the balance right again with End Games, published just after his death. I love Leon for her erudition (she's an English prof in Italy) and her feel for food! Camilleri is the only one of the three who is available in translation, since he doesn't write in English. But his Montalbano is right up there with the best of book-cops.
    Never developed a feel for the Brit-based mysteries so much, though I know many hardcore fans of Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford series.

  10. Oh, forgot to mention A Long Finish among the Dibdin faves. I'll never look at a truffle the same way again.

  11. hi, just a PS: have progressed on to a couple of later Robinsons and they ARE much better than the first two. Especially Wednesday's Child. So, thanks! The only anon on this comment section.

  12. Anyone read Lawrence Block? Would love to read comments on his books. Also Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Ross MacDonald...