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.