Memo to whoever signs off the book jackets: Alan Banks has been promoted (he had to choose at the end of the last book – it was either that or retirement) and is now a Detective Superintendent – a DSI.
Last Book Group meeting we had an Ian Rankin Rebus and a couple of the women who watched crime on TV but didn’t read crime fiction opined for a detective who didn’t have problems of his own to anguish over. In Peter Robinson‘s When the music’s over (Hodder, 2016), the 23rd novel in the sequence, Alan Banks, single and not particularly bothered, seems to have reached that plateau in his personal life, and, following the trend of the last book, DI Annie Cabbot takes on both more of the foot work and some of the angst.
At the end of the day, once Peter Robinson‘s customary narrative drive kicks in and picks up the pace – after a tedious conversational trudge through an idiot’s guide to the ins and outs and why and wherefore of historical celebrity sex abuse cases – When the music’s over can be said to be a another successful outing. Even after we have to go through the same educational exercise concerning sexual grooming gangs (Rotherham et al) and multiracial policing in general. It has to be said the enterprise is creaking somewhat as Robinson seeks relevance with, not for the first time, the 1960s looming large in the background. But the bad guys get their deserts, one way or another.
So there are two major crime strands, and the two featured victims are the most interesting characters in the book; Banks is on the backburner. There’s Linda Palmer – unorthodox survivor of childhood rape, award-winning poet Banks’ age; her memoir of the rape – five episodes covering 23 pages in a sans serif font placed at intervals as the investigation unfolds – contains the best writing in the book, and she comes alive in conversation with Banks; indeed Robinson dangles out the prospect of romance at the end. It’s a quote from her at the head of this piece. And then there’s the unfolding back story of Mimosa Moffat, the 14-year-old whose dead naked body is found on an isolated Dale at the start of the book, which is sensitively handled (with Annie to the fore) within a standard lumpenproletariat setting. Danny Saxton, the accused in the first case, is an amalgam of Savile et al; his first wife’s and his unwillingly complicit assistant’s stories add texture to that side of the case.
So what of the regular features that make the Banks books so interesting to some of us? The geographical range is tighter: Yorkshire Dales mostly, of course, but also the North-East and, historically, Blackpool. Banks is drinking less – no whisky other than anecdotally – even the odd Coke when he’s driving. He’s (as it happens) working his way through a chronologically arranged anthology of English poetry that he bought in a second-hand bookshop; there’s a lot of poetry name dropping. The burgeoning music, and indeed books references, are increasingly used as signifiers for other characters as well as Banks, and his tastes continue to be eclectic with no over-riding theme, though he has got me worried when he admits to listening to Elvis movie soundtracks ‘now and then’ (where does he find the time?). Longtime work buddy Annie Cabbot, now in her early-40s, still frustrates; as the child of a Cornish artistic bohemian community, I’m afraid if she’s to figure larger in the future I expect more from her than talking about ‘fit blokes’ and having a bare-chested Daniel Craig as a cultural touchstone – after teenage reaction to your upbringing surely you backtrack a little? She’s struggling with the move from police force to police service, worrying about having to be ‘delicate’.
Overall I’m intrigued what can happen next with the soap opera aspects of the whole Banks saga. The books are increasingly too long, padded out by hackneyed description of, for instance, walkers in the Market Square, or superfluous meal listings. Robinson’s juggling of two cases at once still drives a good story once he gets going, and there are still some decent plot turns. But I can’t really see Banks in a New Tricks role (the show gets the nod seemingly obligatory in every British crime novel I read) and retirement (though not actually mentioned) still looms. As does, with him as a Detective Superintendent, a vacuum. We are left with mutterings of a potential disciplinary hearing, even though this time he played it by the book. The two potential civilian women in Banks’s life – the folksinger from previous books pops up again near the end – are much more interesting as characters than the three women in his team, none of whom have really been developed; Annie might be going backwards. The dialogue is sharper the shorter the sentences, the longer ones often bearing the weight of narrative or background explication of one sort or another. If I picked up When the music’s over as my first Banks novel would I pursue him further back, explore the earlier books? I can’t realistically say, but I shall still definitely be looking out for the next one.
An awful lot of the traffic here at Lillabullero comes because of the increasingly systematic treatment given to the DCI Banks sequence of novels here. (Click on the underlined words for a link to the whole sequence).