Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Pleasures of Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks Series

Novelist Peter Robinson.

Although I had previously read with pleasure the British-born Canadian Peter Robinson’s standalone novel, Before the Poison (William Morrow & Co., 2013), I had not dipped into his DCI Alan Banks police procedural series until this summer. My first entry was All the Colours of Darkness (McClelland & Stewart, 2008), and it was a wonderful introduction, particularly for a reader whose primary interest in mysteries is not a whodunit but an exploration of character, relationships, issues or themes. That was followed by several other novels: Bad Boy (2011), Watching in the Dark, (2012), Children of the Revolution (2013), and perhaps the best of them all, the multiple award-winning In a Dry Season (1999). Also, as a highly educated writer with a PhD in twentieth-century British poets and an individual with an eclectic taste in music, his novels are laced with literary and musical associations that are frequently integrated into the narrative as motifs. For instance, the title of the last novel mentioned above derives from a line from a T.S. Eliot poem that Banks himself references. Banks who works in rural Yorkshire in the town of Eastvale may remind some readers of Inspector Reg Wexford and the cultured Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Their creators, both the late P.D. James and Ruth Rendell respectively, were inspirations to Robinson. For the purposes of this review, I will focus primarily on All the Colours of Darkness and In a Dry Season.

In Colours of Darkness, a brutal murder is soon followed by the apparent suicide of the prime suspect. The two men were gay partners, and there is no indication that a third party is directly involved. The subsequent investigation turns up photos of the murder victim with another man, pointing to the conclusion that extreme jealousy, rage, and remorse were the motivations behind the two deaths. Banks remains unconvinced of that scenario given that the suicide victim worked on an amateur production of Othello. Banks’s gut instinct tells him there is some kind of Othello analogy at play. When Banks attends the play with his current girlfriend at the local theatre in Eastvale, he describes it to her as being about “jealousy, betrayal, envy, ambition, greed, lust, revenge . . . All the colours of darkness.” He begins to develop the theory that someone who felt threatened by the dead man’s presence exploited his insecurities and whipped him into a state of rage to the extent he acted upon it and murdered his lover and then killed himself. But has a crime been committed? Robinson brilliantly and plausibly explores this theme of manipulation. Moreover, he wonders why so much pressure is exerted to ensure that the case is closed and that no further investigation is undertaken. When Banks discovers that the murdered man worked for MI6 and is subsequently visited by a sinister MI5 officer, Mr. Browne, who suggests he drop the case for security reasons, he is convinced that there is something more to the case. The same shadowy officer briefly reappears in Children of the Revolution, again urging the police to abort its investigation after the revelation that the politician son of the crime perpetrator is likely to be named to the cabinet, an appointment that the security services welcome. I fondly recall the British television series Spooks, sometimes retitled MI5 when shown in North America, in part because the TV series addressed a number of important security issues and partly because the officers were generally presented in a sympathetic manner, a contrast to how Mr. Browne and other MI5 officers are portrayed by Robinson. Colours of Darkness begins as a police procedural and turns into a thriller, and that, along with the Othello motif, accounts for the novel’s originality and literary quality.

Dry Season is an absorbing, layered novel that fluidly moves between a mystery set in a fictional village called Hobb’s End during the Second World War recounted in an ambiguous memoir, written twenty-five years later by the now septuagenarian detective novelist, Vivian Elmsley, and a police procedural in the present investigated by Banks and a younger local detective sergeant, Annie Cabbot. She is introduced into the series and becomes, aside from Banks himself, the most important character in this and subsequent novels. The drama in Dry Season kicks off with the discovery of a skeleton, hidden since World War II in the reservoir-flooded hamlet, but recently exposed by a drought. Since the bones appear to be those of a murdered woman, the police in nearby Eastvale are alerted, and Banks is called in to investigate. After consulting with forensic experts, he concludes that the body must have been killed and buried before Hobb's End was evacuated. As Banks and Cabbot recreate the fifty-year-old crime scene through the memories of its ex-inhabitants, they come to realize the deprivations, fears and hidden passions of wartime Yorkshire. They're also drawn by the story of their murder victim, Gloria Shackleton, a lively sometimes provocative “land girl” who'd ventured into the country to help with the farming, but wound up marrying a young soldier who was later reported killed in Southeast Asia.

The textured details of that life up to the death of Gloria are provided through the memoir of Elmsley, whose name at that time was Gwen Shackleton and for a time the sister-in-law to the murdered woman. Her memoir vividly evokes the rationing, the ever-present fear of bombing and the worry about the fate of local men fighting overseas, the tensions between the community and the invading Yanks, and the terrible ordeal for the caregivers of the returning severely maimed and psychologically damaged veterans. We do question, however, the accuracy or selectivity of the memoir, given that Elmsley refuses to respond to police appeals for any survivors of that time to come forward and her dread about their knocking on her door. At one point she even wonders whether the manuscript is “all just a story.” Regardless, it provides clues to the identity of the perpetrator even though Robinson spends little time writing about him and Banks never even meets him. Robinson is far more interested in exploring the psychological and moral complexity of the major characters in the present, how the past can intrude on the present, and how art can be deployed to provide insight into characters. (Robinson also creatively evokes the past in Children of the Revolution and how the lives of two people in the heady early 1970s impacts one of them in the 1990s and both of them in the twenty-first century.)

Robinson’s character study of Banks, Cabbot, and Vivian Elmsley turns a finely-crafted novel into one of real depth provoking self-reflection as to whether wise choices in their past were made. Brooding on the disintegration of his marriage to Sandra, questioning his career that has gone into freefall supposedly for insubordination, and at odds with a son whom he thinks is intent on wasting his life in a musical band – years later in Colours of Darkness, Banks takes pride in his son’s musical accomplishments – the Chief Inspector at one point takes solace in listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, which is often thought to be about Dylan’s own marital problems. Professionally, he begins to really care about what happened to Gloria Shackleton. Personally, his life takes on a new meaning by an aborning relationship with Annie Cabbot, a feminist and more youthful cop. Her professional life has also been redlined by her inability to quietly accept the macho sexism of her male colleagues and she has paid a high price for being “difficult.” She is dispatched to a tiny outpost where the work there does not provide the challenge to match her skills – until she is teamed with Banks to assist him in solving a crime that occurred years before. Without spelling out too many details, I think that Robinson is suggesting a similarity between the life of a sometimes brazen Gloria and a free-spirited Annie.

Annie, the daughter of a painter, has a deep interest in the visual arts and furthers the plot by visiting a gallery in Leeds to see a nude painting of Gloria created by a local eccentric in Hobb’s End. The portrait evokes for Annie parallels with Goya’s Naked Maja and Manet’s Olympia, parallels that offer further insight into Gloria’s character. (It is worth noting that at one point early in the novel, Banks, who is more comfortable with music than painting, is whistling an aria from Bizet’s Carman, one of the most famous femme fatales in the operatic canon.) But the most memorable response to that painting comes from the elderly Vivian Elmsley, who is most disturbed by her own unsettled responses to it. Writing of this quality places Robinson in the highest echelons of crime writers, rivalling if not surpassing that of the more well-known Ian Rankin and the passel of Scandinavian writers.

Finally, I will offer a few brief comments about the television series DCI Banks (three seasons of which are available on DVD in Canada). Its greatest strength is the casting of Stephen Topkinson as Alan Banks, whom I think convincingly, inhabits the role, and Andrea Lowe as Annie Cabbot. I find the decision to cast Caroline Catz as DI Morton puzzling, since this character is not in the original novels. Other curious decisions include developing the love interest between Banks and Cabbot in the television adaptation of Bad Boy given that by the time of this novel, their love has morphed more into a professional but caring relationship. I think it would have been more powerful if the program had adhered to what did happen to Cabbot in the novel. But these caveats should not deter anyone from seeing the series which is not merely watchable but often compelling. However, reading the novels should take first priority.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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