by Peter Robinson
500 pages, Pan Macmillan
Review by Pat Black
I do like books that sneak up on you. Not like some deranged killer. More like a nice surprise; one you didn’t expect to like, one you didn’t even know you wanted to read until you slid it off a shelf and had a wee look at the back cover.
Peter Robinson’s work is familiar to millions thanks to his detective hero, DCI Alan Banks. I hadn’t read any of his stuff before this, not being able to read as much crime as I’d like. I can understand the appeal. Some people like crime books the same way some people like Sudoku. That’s not to label it an idle pursuit or to belittle the quality of the writing; many of them are beautifully written by master technicians. Rather, there’s a lusory quality to detective stories and whodunnits. It’s a wee game between writer and reader. Sometimes, as Ian Rankin admitted recently, it can be a wee game between writer and self. Can you guess who did it? And can the writer outfox themselves as they unfold the plot?
I borrowed Not Safe After Dark from a big crime writing fan the night before a holiday. It was probably the book I enjoyed most on my break, and thanks to its late inclusion I put off reading Franzen’s The Corrections again. Not Safe After Dark is a collection of short stories spanning Robinson’s career from the late eighties up until 2004. There are four Inspector Banks stories, including the 100-page novella which brings the book to a close.
I quite liked Banks because of his ordinariness. There’s no gimmick with Robinson’s hero, nothing outlandish or showy. I sighed a little at the quirks, like enjoying Theakston’s ales and his smug, baby-boomer pronouncements about popular music. But these character tics are mild – the stuff of someone you’d make friends with at work, someone safe, reliable and uncontroversial. Banks is no Inspector Cliché. There’s a divorce in there, but Banks isn’t a broken man. There’s no cop-on-the-edge histrionics, just someone living their life. He’s got friends, a brother and elderly parents. There are no skeletons in the closet, no psychological scars. Apart from one wish-fulfilment act of restraint on some unruly neighbours, there’s little violence in him. How odd that the humdrum should actually come as a surprise in fiction. We’re so used to mavericks and ball-aches.
Sartre once argued that consciousness is nothing. Maybe consciousness for the detective is actually more like a mirror; Banks’ pabulum serves as way of reflecting the wickedness which he is seeking to root out and punish. Like the mythical basilisk, destroyed by the reflection of its own corruption. Dear lord, we’re losing it here! I need 20ccs of realism, stat!
The best of the Banks tales was the closing novella, "Going Back". Banks returns to the parental bosom in Reading for his parents’ golden wedding anniversary. His cop antennae twitches when he meets Geoff, a sort of surrogate son who inserts himself into the lives of the elderly people in the town. But the crime involved in this story is almost incidental. Mostly, it’s about Banks meeting people from his past, including an old flame. Inspector Banks becomes Inspector Bonks. But it’s a melancholic coupling, unusually poignant.
Banks is fine, but the real meat is in the variety elsewhere in the book. The stories are an intriguing mix, set in a variety of times and places. Locations vary from Hardy country to Yorkshire to Toronto, from New York to Los Angeles.
There are light touches. "Fan Mail" has the Hitchcock-esque idea of a crime writer being asked to plan the perfect murder for a henpecked husband. "Going To The Dawgs" looks at the all-too-believable scenario of a man seeking to murder a supposed friend over NFL fantasy league tables. "Some Land In Florida" sees a private eye piecing together why a Santa Claus in full costume should end up electrocuted in a swimming pool. "Much Ado About Murder" is set in 16th century Vienna, a bawdy romp employing the bard's bed tricks and sexual braggadocio to murderous effect.
But I preferred the stories with more of a moral element. "Innocence" is the best in the book, the haunting tale of how one man’s life is pulled apart when he is arrested and tried for a crime he did not commit – the murder of a schoolgirl. His life, his personal tastes and his sexual preferences are all stripped to the bone and exposed to the whole country simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. All the more sobering when you consider that every year, miscarriages of justice are exposed in the appeal courts, with innocent people rotting in prison while the true criminals are still at large.
The two stories starring teacher turned wartime special constable Frank Bascombe were also fine morality plays. "April in Paris" was a romantic fever dream set during the 1968 student riots, a little too glittery for my eyes but still a compelling tragedy. "Lawn Sale" was in a similar vein, looking at a war veteran’s attempts to reclaim precious articles that were stolen from his home by a feckless teenage burglar. The varmint’s chilling refrain, "No-one gives a f*ck about you," haunted me.
The term "mixed bag" doesn’t normally denote praise, but it’s true in this case. Enjoy the twists and turns of a fine writer. I do want to check out the Banks novels now, and I can think of no higher praise for this sample of Robinson’s work.