Review: Peter Robinson – Watching the Dark

Watching the Dark is Peter Robinson’s twentieth novel featuring the detective Alan Banks. I’ve been reading these books for years and followed the course of the detective as his marriage disintegrated, his children have grown up and he has embarked on a number of ill-fated relationships. Unlike many of the series I’ve been reading over the years, I’ve kept up with this one. Last year, Peter Robinson gave the character a break and published Before the Poison, an eerie tale set in Yorkshire which was an enjoyable read. However, it was good to see the return of Alan Banks in time for my holiday.

The book opens with the cross-bow killing of a British policeman, Bill Reid, in a rehabilitation centre. When police search through his room they find some compromising photographs which suggest an extra-marital affair with a young girl before his wife died. Sensing a possible case of police corruption, a professional standards officer, Joanna Pressaro, is called in to shadow Banks’s investigation and sniff out any hint of bribery. The dead policeman’s major unsolved case was the disappearance of 19 year old Rachel Hewitt six years earlier in Estonia. When a potential link emerges between the killing and the Tallin disappearance, Banks and Pressaro head off to Estonia to investigate. It is left to Annie Cabot, returning from six month’s sick leave, and her team to follow leads in and around Eastvale involving the illegal working conditions suffered by migrant workers.

This is one of my favourite crime series and I think Robinson has done well to maintain the quality over what has become a significant body of work. That said, I enjoyed this book more than the last few in the series, largely I think because the action moved away from being solely set in Eastvale and embraced the Estonian police and underworld. I’ve never been to Tallin but Robinson gave a good flavour of Eastern European cities bombarded at week-ends by stag and hen parties arriving on cheap flights from the UK. The Irish bars and slightly dodgy clubs that spring up to cater for the drinkers can provide harmless entertainment but also cover for those with less honourable intentions. The investigation set in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale focused on the migrant community and although it’s not something I’ve come across, I could see how local ‘entrepreneurs’ could easily take advantage of young people coming to the UK to seek a better life. The fact that it takes place in the lovely Yorkshire countryside makes it more shocking.

The cast of characters will be familiar to those who read this series, with the exception of the police standards office Joanna. There was an obvious attraction between her and Banks so perhaps Joanna will make it into future books. I sometimes miss the characters of the early Robinson novels, in particular the dry-stone walling Superintendent Gristhorpe and psychologist Jenny Fuller. But to keep the series fresh, obviously new characters have had to be added. Like Ian Rankin’s detective, Rebus, Banks has got older although he still has that restlessness that gives the narrative an interesting edge.

I think it’s wise of the publisher Hodder to publish each new Peter Robinson book in August. In a month where there is often a dearth of good new releases, the book is a must-read for me.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher.

Location, location, location

I’ve been thinking a lot about the settings of crime novels recently. I think this is partly because I have recently read so many books where the location of the crime has seemed as crucial to the book as the plot. I’ve just finished Lawrence Block’s excellent A Drop of the Hard Stuff for example which revisits an old case of the detective Matt Scudder and contrasts present day New York to the city of the early eighties. Block’s Matt Scudder thrillers are imbued with the spirit of New York and those of us who have read his books for years have seen the city change through the writer’s work. Likewise, I finished Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man over the summer. The nearest I’ve been to Ystad is Malmo although I would love to go there one day as Mankell’s books have brought the town alive to me. And it’s not just old favourites. Cold Justice by Katherine Howell, recommended by Bernadette at http://reactionstoreading.com/ made me think nostalgically of my visit to Sydney a couple of years ago. And these literary references can develop a life of their own. Oxford runs Inspector Morse tours, Shrewsbury has a Brother Cadfael trail and Edinbugh a two-hour Rebus walk.

But there is something to be said for the fictional place too. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and the village of St Mary Mead I can envisage in my head. Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham is less easy for me to explore geographically but I can identify the type of Sussex town she is referencing. And Peter Robinson’s Eastvale seems to embody all those North Yorkshire towns with their cobbled squares and undulating surrounding countryside. I suppose the advantage of fictional places is that you can shape the place to fit the action. If you need a bridge, invent one. A church with a crooked spire? Put one in the north of the village. And these fictional places aren’t just small. Sue Grafton’s Santa Theresa is a sizable city although I’m not sure how closely it resembles the real life Santa Barbara.

So which do I prefer? I suppose I would have to say genuine locations mainly I suppose as they can make a book come alive. But I suspect my teenage years reading Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell have left me with an abiding affection for the invented place.