It’s a Mystery: “To the dead we owe only truth”
By Peter Robinson
William Morrow, 2013
Peter Robinson’s skill with the British police procedural has been polished to a high gloss. Watching the Dark, his twentieth novel featuring Detective Inspector Alan Banks of Eastvale, Yorkshire, ranks with the best of them. Since his debut novel, Gallows View (1987), Banks has been a welcome addition to the elite of the genre. By the time of this novel, he is long divorced from Sandra (their marriage began to disintegrate in Blood at the Root from 1997) and his children are grown. But he remains much the way he was first described in Gallows, only more so:
He was always like this when he found a new interest. He would pursue it with a passion for anywhere between one and six months, have a restless period, lose interest and move onto something else. Of course, the detritus would remain…. That was how the house had come to be cluttered up with wine-making equipment, twenties jazz records, books on every subject under the sun…. He had become interested in opera after seeing, quite by chance, a version of Mozart’s Magic Flute on television…. Something piqued his curiosity and he wanted to know more…. He would plunge into a subject with cavalier disregard for its chronological development…. Sandra was forever tripping over the book-sized cassette boxes, as he liked to walk to work and listen to Purcell or Monteverdi on his Walkman; in the car it was generally Puccini or Verdi, good old Joe Green.
Watching the Dark opens at the St. Peter’s Police Treatment Centre. Banks is more familiar with the center than he’d like to be. His partner and former lover DI Annie Cabbot has just left there after a lengthy convalescence from wounds sustained during their last case Bad Boy (2010). But Banks never expected to be working a case there. And it’s an odd one. Bill Quinn, a fellow officer also recuperating at St. Peter’s from what might be described as psychological problems following his wife’s recent death, has been found murdered on the grounds by a crossbow. Not exactly a contemporary weapon. More 21st century are the compromising photos in Quinn’s room that suggest an extramarital affair.
Banks’s superior these days is the recently promoted area commander AC Catherine Gervaise. (In British crime novels there tend to be a plethora of initials in front of everyone’s names). Confession: Banks and I miss his old boss Superintendent Gristhorpe. An erudite cross between John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey and Michael Gilbert’s CI Hazelrigg, Gristhorpe had the endearing hobby of constructing a stone wall on his property bit by bit without mortar, in the ancient fashion. It’s an apt metaphor for some of his methods but,
The oddest thing about Gristhorpe’s appearance—and it was a facet that disconcerted both colleagues and criminals alike—was his eyes. Deep set under bushy brows, they were those of a child: wide, blue, innocent…they had been known to draw out confessions from even the hardest of villains and had made many an underling, caught out in a manufactured statement or an overenthusiastic interrogation, blush and hide in shame.
Gervaise has made Gristhorpe’s old office very much her own. She’s replaced his rows of literary classics with legal or forensic texts, “though there was the telltale Stella Rimington autobiography that Gervaise had clearly forgotten to hide.” The book is a revelation to Banks since Rimington, not so incidentally, was the Director of MI5 and the basis of James Bond’s M via Ian Fleming. (This is all well before the redoubtable Judi Dench, who might seem more akin to Gervaise). Much to Banks’s chagrin, a polite word for what he is really feeling, Gervais introduces Inspector Joanna Passero of Professional Standards (read rat squad for internal affairs) to his crew, making it clear she is to be an essential part of his team. Her mission is to find out how crooked a copper Quinn was, which involves second guessing Banks. He’s hell bent on solving the murder in his own way without her help and clearing Quinn’s name in the process.
The course of a true murder investigation never runs smoothly. There is a major cold case in Quinn’s past that made national headlines six years earlier. It involved a local girl, nineteen-year-old Rachel Hewitt, who disappeared without a trace in Tallinn, Estonia. The more Banks digs, the clearer it becomes that Quinn’s murder and Rachel’s disappearance are inextricably linked. Banks and Joanna, his faithful shadow, travel to Tallinn. Soon, they are up to their eyeballs in intrigue, clues that seem to lead nowhere, plenty of local hostility, every cobbled alleyway of the city’s Old Town seems sinister. Some powerful people don’t want the past stirred up.
Meanwhile, in Eastvale Annie Cabbot is back at work and making waves on her own. She’s uncovered a migrant labor scam that involves the basest kind of human trafficking. The sharks behind it are both close to home and Estonia. A mutilated body surfaces that is definitely not an Englishman. As the action heats up in Eastvale and Tallinn, Banks becomes acutely aware that the forces that link the murders and Rachel’s disappearance are darker and more dangerous than even he could have imagined.
As always, Robinson structures his plot lines much like Inspector Gristhorpe builds his wall—very carefully. Although he has been called a maverick, Alan Banks is also a master of patient detective work, which pays off and keeps the suspense at full throttle. He has evolved into one of our most appealing cops, up there with Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford and P.D. James’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Music is integral to his life now and every Robinson novel is laced with musical references. Banks’s tastes are wonderfully eclectic: he listens to Jimi Hendrix as often as Benjamin Britten. And he is inordinately proud of his son Brian, who has a very successful music group the Blue Lamps: “Britpop with a tinge of psychedelic and a smattering of country-folk-blues.”
I want Robinson and Banks to go on forever. As one critic put it so aptly: “His characters are so believable you’ll find yourself wondering what they’re doing after Robinson stops writing.”
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.