Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Children of the Revolution: DCI Banks Continues to Please

It probably no longer needs to be said that Peter Robinson is one of the premier writers of detective fiction in the English language, right up there with Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, P.D. James and any other crime novelist that you might care to name. The facts speak for themselves: Children of the Revolution (McClelland & Stewart) is Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, apart from five other standalone works of fiction. His awards and prizes, in several countries, are numerous. And besides all that, there is the BBC series based on his novels (titled, unimaginatively, DCI Banks, but brilliantly cast with veteran actor Stephen Tompkinson in the title role), which Robinson aficionados will be pleased to hear has been renewed for a third season.

In this novel, DCI Banks is called out to a cold, damp death, a man broken and battered on an abandoned railway line 30 metres below an isolated footbridge. He could be a suicide or he could have been pushed over the wall of the overpass, or he could have been beaten and thrown off the bridge. The victim, named Gavin Miller, is a local man, down on his luck and a bit of a loner, though not altogether unfriendly. There is, however, one highly unusual thing about Miller’s death: He was carrying an envelope with £5,000 in new £50 notes in it. As Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman says, “Not something you’d need for a walk in the woods.” (page 9)

As the investigation moves along, the detectives discover that Miller was a former film-studies professor at Eastvale College, who had been dismissed in disgrace after he was accused – though never charged, tried or convicted – of sexual misconduct by two of his students. More problematically, Miller’s cellphone records indicate he had recently made a call to Lady Veronica Chalmers, resident of Eastvale’s “Millionaires’ Row,” wife of a knighted theatrical producer, sister-in-law of an influential physician and aunt of a hot young politico being touted for Home Secretary.

Typically, Banks’s questioning of Lady Chalmers (“My friends call me Ronnie” [page 77]), though light-handed by his standards, provokes a fast and furious reaction from high up in the police hierarchy, and he is told in no uncertain terms to focus on other aspects of the investigation. Typically, he continues looking into the affairs of the Chalmers family, enlisting Detective Constable Geraldine Masterson, the team’s newest recruit, to conduct research in secret.

Peter Robinson (Photo: Niall McDiarmid)      
While Banks and DC Masterson conduct their investigations, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot and DS Jackman begin looking into the scandal that got Gavin Miller fired. His friends – such as there were – think the two girls who accused him had made it all up, either mischievously or to help out a pal of theirs who was dealing drugs. Their inquiries, and Banks’s, lead the detectives into the distant past, the early 1970s, when Maggie Thatcher was at war with Britain’s unions and Eastvale College was a nest of student radicals.

One of the joys of this work, as in all the Alan Banks novels, is the nicely drawn ensemble cast of police, medical examiners and CSIs, up to and including Banks’s immediate superior, Area Commander Catherine Gervaise, who is frustrated at his attitude but willing to accept his results. It has been noted before that the troubled, ambitious and sharp-tongued Annie Cabbot could easily front a series of her own, and the tall, imposing Winsome Jackman is a calm presence in the squad room that stays in your imagination.

Even the book’s relatively minor characters – Lady Chalmers’s exotic secretary/companion, Oriana Serroni; the student Lisa Gray, still struggling with the fact that she was drugged and raped four years before; Dayle Snider, the victim’s once-upon-a-time girlfriend; Joe Jarvis, former miner and union activist, now dying – are carefully and skillfully brought to life by Robinson’s prose.

All in all, Robinson, a long-time resident of Toronto who now spends part of the year in his native Yorkshire, does his usual adept job of doling out the secrets and the discoveries, and then interlacing the many plot strands and character notes together into a nice, tidy and satisfying package. (And a conclusion that appears to leave Banks on the cusp of a brand-new love affair. Say no more.) 

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts journalist in Toronto.

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