Posts Tagged ‘Peter Robinson’

Damn you, Peter Robinson.  That was a dirty trick.  Come on, man: this is meant to be prime police procedural.  It’s a novel, not a goddamn TV series Finale.  We need closure, but what you do is just keep me hanging on.  This is the second time it’s happened lately (I’m looking at you, Colin Bateman, with your Paper cuts) and, outside of fantasy fiction, where it’s endemic, it better not be turning into a publishing trend.

With Careless love (Hodder, 2018), Peter Robinson hits the quarter century of full-length novels featuring thoughtful, music loving, left-leaning decent bloke detective, Alan Banks.  He’s been a bestseller for a long while now, so as such you wouldn’t expect the number of typos that have crept through, Mr Hodder.

Careless love opens with a young woman in an evening dress found dead in a car parked in a layby on the Yorkshire Moors with a Police Aware sticker in the window.  Not long after, an older expensively dressed man is found at the bottom of a ravine not far away.  Are they linked?  They usually are: Robinson is skilled in handling such seemingly parallel investigations within Banks’s team.  And when another young woman is found murdered on Alan’s mate Ken’s patch in Leeds, links begin to emerge.

It’s a decent enough police procedural, the upshot being [mild spoiler alert] something that started as a sequence of certainly dodgy, but unlucky events, and a cover-up that turned sinister thereafter.  More mundane, even, though no less tragic, than usual in a Banks novel, but one which the man finds troublingly, ethically grey.

Into all this, in a subplot involving a character we’re driven to have a lot of sympathy for, is thrown a spectre from the past, a character from the 14th Banks novel, 2010’s Playing with fire – an evil geezer called Phil Keane, who had seduced Annie Cabbot (main long-term member of Banks’s team (and then some)) and nearly burnt down Banks’s idyllic cottage with him in it, a man with links to East European and Russian crime gangs.  As far as the bodies on the moors investigation goes this is a [spoiler alert] red herring – he remains a spectre – but it sets up the cliffhanger ending that I was complaining about at the start.  Novel 26 in the Banks series promises to be explosive indeed.

It’s all quiet on the soap opera and bit-of-a-rebel fronts.  Banks is ruminative, thinking over – even listing for us – past loves and possibilities, but “He didn’t feel sad, just lonely sometimes.  But it was true that much of the time he enjoyed being alone“.  His bosses hardly figure.  Musical, literary and film references – many obscure – abound (some would say, clutter) almost beyond parody – how about a live Berlin Philharmonic concert screening? “The lure of seeing Patricia Kopatchinskaja dancing barefoot around Simon Rattle as she played the Ligeti violin concerto was almost too hard to resist“.  But with Annie’s artist father Ray now living in Yorkshire, Banks has a fellow sixties music aficionado to joust with, and he’s still got the poetry bug.

Our man is in charge of an all female team – a situation that gets no special attention – with the continuing enigma that is Annie Cabbot° well to the fore in the action; I’d venture that the interviews conducted by her with newest team member Gerry owe something to recent British TV cop shows, and are none the worse for it; Gerry is developing well as a character of dry wit (turning as she leaves a room: ‘Sorry to do a Columbo on you sir,’ she said, ‘but I’m curious about …’).

Banks is feeling his age a bit, moderately imbibing wine and beer, not the happiest of bunnies, but still good enough company for this reader.  He hasn’t got much time for Jeremy Corbyn, but ‘It was easy to be cynical about the naivety of the young, but without it nothing would ever change very much‘.

Peter Robinson is not top of my tree, but the systematic treatment I’ve been giving to each novel here on Lillabullero, detailing musical and literary references, alcohol consumed, Banks’s love life etc. is probably the most visited part of the whole website, so I’m committed to him.  Here’s a link:  Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks Mysteries.

One way or another, I think the next book is going to be spectacular.

°When I say Annie is enigmatic, I don’t mean that she’s a Mona Lisa – more’s the pity – but that there are inconsistencies over the various books (see the notes on Book 24 on the page cited above for starters).  But she certainly has her moments:

A proper little fucking Miss Marple, aren’t you?’
‘And here’s me thinking the site of your father’s body would stop you behaving like a complete arse.’






Read Full Post »

Thirty years on since the first of Peter Robinson‘s Yorkshire Dales-based crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks first appeared in print, Sleeping in the ground (Hodder & S, 2017), is the 24th in the sequence.  I think it’s something of a return to form that also holds the promise of refreshing the slightly tired platform for what is to come next.

Sleeping in the ground opens strongly with a funeral and a mass shooting at a wedding happening 150 miles apart.  Banks is back in Peterborough, where he grew up, at the funeral – an event that affects him deeply – of his first love, Emily Hargreaves, who’d dumped him – something he still doesn’t understand – back in 1973.  He returns north to the Yorkshire Dales to be handed the investigation into the massacre of the bride and groom and 4 others at a locally high-profile wedding, which appears to be cleared up with the apparent suicide a retired dentist and  shooting enthusiast.  Except he doesn’t fit the profile and there’s no motive:

After the team meeting, he was more convinced than ever that there was something fishy about the whole St Mary’s business. […] True, profiles aren’t always accurate, and Jenny had quite reasonably complained that she didn’t have enough to go on, but the comparison between what they knew of spree killers or mass murderers and what they had been able to discover about Martin Edgeworth’s character, life and actions just didn’t match up. Then there were the forensic and pathology details. It might be a long haul ahead, but there had to be a way of getting to the bottom of it.

And that’s what the police procedural aspect of Sleeping in the ground then proceeds to do, with Banks and various members of his team relentlessly talking to people, interviewing others, following a hunch picked up from reading a survivor of the shooting’s body language, and then sitting at the computer, digging in the records and local newspapers, and involving, naturally, the full pathologist and forensics CSI armoury.  This all rolls along nicely – with the slight early hiatus of the discussion on psychological profiling descending into a bit of a textbook recitation – to a thrilling and nail-biting climax in the raging waters of a flood, the outcome of which is by no means narratively certain, because – there’s no guarantee the copper involved will reappear in the next book (and I really hoped so).  The details and mechanics of the full crime are ingenious – or you could say, incredibly convoluted – but entirely acceptable to this reader at least in the overall context of the story.

The solution, the motivation for the massacre, goes back to another painful sequence of events in 1964.  So both Banks’s ruminative and nostalgic state of mind, and the origins of the crime, revolve around ghosts of the past.  Banks also considers, in passing, old cases he was involved with, and his failed marriage, and he finally gets to learn what went wrong with Emily.  The soap opera aspects of the Banks saga carry this looking back theme further with the return of two attractive characters from past books.

The profiler involved is one Jenny Fuller, last seen at about book 12, the woman Banks came nearest to committing adultery with when he was married.  She’s moved back in the area, and there’s no rush, they’re leaving things open as a possibility.  The other old face – not as previously prominent – is Annie Cabbot’s dad.  (For those unfamiliar with the books, Annie is an interesting longstanding member of Banks’ team, briefly his lover, who, frankly, Peter Robinson has lately wasted, through lack of focus).  Annie’s dad, Ray, has left the artists’ commune in Cornwall where Annie was raised – still sprightly enough, he’s feeling a bit old for all this modern concept stuff – and is looking to buy somewhere in the Dales to be near Annie; he makes a wonderful foil for Banks in his dotage.  There’s a joke about Annie warning Banks that Ray was listening to Dylan when he, Banks, was still in short trousers; to which Banks protests he was too listening to Dylan in short trousers.

So I hope that those two reappear strongly in future books, and that Gerry (Geraldine) Masterson, fast-track graduate who was impressive in the previous book and is a star in Sleeping in the ground, continues to have a prominent role.  The sparring of Annie Cabbot with Gerry and Jenny is an entertaining sideshow that also shows promise.  We also get a rare glimpse of the man back when:

It was a photograph. Banks held it by the candlelight. He and Emily in the early seventies. He was wearing a denim jacket over a T-shirt, and bell bottoms, and his hair was much longer than it was now.

For those who know the books, rest assured Peter Robinson continues to spray musical references and citations all over the place (I counted at least 35 – think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous and obscure, actually), along with a load of other cultural nods and winks.  As well as sharing musical tastes one playfully wonders sometimes just how much of Peter Robinson goes into his alter ego.  Like … here’s young Geraldine, unattached and not particularly looking, but:

When she let herself think about it, which wasn’t often, she realised that she wouldn’t mind at all going out with someone like Banks, if he wasn’t her boss, that is, that age wouldn’t really be an issue. He seemed healthy and young enough in body and spirit, was handsome in that lean and intense sort of way, and she certainly got the impression that he was interested in a wide range of subjects, so conversation wouldn’t be a problem. He also had a sense of humour, which she had been told by her mother was esential to a happy marriage. Not that she was having fantasies about marrying Banks, or even going out with him. Just that the whole idea didn’t seem so outrageous.

Anyway, the soundtrack for Sleeping in the ground (the title itself a song title, but later for that) touchingly starts and ends with David Bowie, with Starman from Ziggy Stardust played at the funeral, and Blackstar in the car near the end.  To which Geraldine says:

My dad likes David Bowie. I never really had much time for music.”
“You should make some,” Banks said. “It helps keep you sane and human in a crazy world, especially after a night like tonight.”

To which, Amen.  Banks is still reading poetry too, in particular, even before the funeral, Thomas Hardy‘s Poems 1912-1913, concerning the magic of first love; his novels get a couple of mentions too.  (Fuller details of the music and all this – not forgetting the alcohol modestly consumed – and more specific thoughts on the novel, can be found elsewhere here on Lillabullero at https://quavid.wordpress.com/about/peter-robinsons-inspector-banks-mysteries/, where it and others in the sequence are considered more systematically).

And so to the title.  It’s an obscure Blind Faith song, credited to Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood, and performed at that Hyde Park concert, though the song was never released until it appeared on the Clapton Crossroads box set.  It’s a mean-spirited, unredemptive and highly derivative – I might go so far as to say ‘nasty little’ – blues, that doesn’t constitute, be assured, anything like a plot-spoiler.  The Hyde Park rendition is also available on Youtube, but here’s some better keyboards:

Read Full Post »

Peter Robinson - When the music's overMemo 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).

Read Full Post »

Abattoir bluesIt was a bold statement of promise and intent when the producers chose to open each episode of the first series of Peaky Blinders – a brutal many-layered gangster epic rivetingly set in Birmingham (the UK one)  just after the Great War – with something as powerful as Nick Cave‘s Red right hand (Here’s one YouTube link to the song, with a hint of the show’s atmospherics).  It meant the show had an awful lot to live up to; and deliver it did.

This is not the first time Peter Robinson has used a song title for one of his books, but in choosing Nick Cave‘s – that man again – Abattoir blues for this, the 22nd in the sequence (Hodder, 2014), he has considerably upped the ante.  (Here’s a YouTube link to a stunning live version from Later … with the added bonus of some of Cave’s interesting dance moves).  Cave was dealing in metaphor but in the latest DCI Banks novel, vegetarian Annie Cabot literally has to do the rounds of the North Yorkshire abattoirs at a crucial stage in the investigation into large-scale organised rural crime.  Even so, though he’s no Nick Cave, I think Peter Robinson has just about pulled it off – it gets pretty grim – so I’m not going to complain about that.

While there’s no denying that Banks is still an engaging character, nor that Robinson continues to be a master at building and driving a crime narrative forward to a conclusion – no little things! – a few things do give me pause.  There are thrills still to be had for sure as the case unfolds, and the climax of this one certainly breaks new ground.  (These cops never learn though, do they?  Going in on their own, not waiting for back-up.  Exciting, nevertheless, but where would crime fiction – especially on tv – be without it?)  And Abattoir blues boasts the usual strong supporting cast, good guys and gals and bad, too.

Interestingly, Robinson fudges any resolution of the inevitable retirement-of-main-character dilemma that must come to any long-running crime series and which did feature strongly in the previous book.  I’m not sure he knows where he’s going to take Banks next.  The new girlfriend, again from the previous novel, is ongoing but absent working in Australia.  The solitude he used to crave threatens to turn into loneliness, a problem also for at least two of the three women on his team (there is a bloke but he’s fairly peripheral apart from a running joke about him looking like Harry Potter).  Melancholia is reflected also in the more than usual references back to earlier times, cases and loves.  Not that I’m saying this is necessarily a bad thing.

But I’m beginning to think that Robinson is losing his way with Annie Cabot, even if it is suggested – there is one particularly alive passage of dialogue between her and Banks – she’s getting her mojo back after the traumas of the book before the previous one.  I think he’s wasting her background – grew up in a hippy artist’s commune – and for all her rebelling against it, there should be more of that coming out in her now.  She should be more interesting culturally than she is here – trashy magazines, indeed.  Granted Robinson is up against the interest her character in the tv series has generated independently.  An awful lot of the traffic here at Lillabullero comes because of the increasingly systematic treatment given to the DCI Banks sequence of novels.  (Click on the underlined words for a link).  And a lot of that comes about because of Annie on the telly – a great performance from Andrea Lowe, by the way – where the whole chronology has been changed.  I’ve had a query from someone asking, “What happened to Annie’s baby?” – and I can’t remember what happened in the relevant book (if at all).  If anyone can, please let me know.  I suspect Robinson has had the same enquiries.  Or is it just coincidence that near the end of the book she’s helping get the drinks in, in the Queens Arms, and Bobby Vee’s Take good care of my baby starts playing; otherwise, the babe is not mentioned in Abattoir blues.

Other continuities: moderate drinking, more leftish politics, still plenty of music (including joking about prog rock and U2) and Banks is still reading Patrick Hamilton.  More CSI and police procedural, less the maverick.  More physical description of the landscape than of late as well.  (More details and listings can be found on the aforesaid detailed breakdown.)

And Robinson is still no great prose stylist and I found too many longeurs – padding – creeping in, though I’ll admit the attention I bring to his novels these days may be getting the better of me in the entertainment stakes.  Even the opening sentence worried me.  Isn’t “the hangar looming ahead of him” better than “Terry Gilchrist came out of the woods opposite the large hangar, which loomed ahead of him like a storage area for crashed alien spaceships in New Mexico,” never mind the appositeness of ‘opposite’.  Do we really need a short disquisition on the economic difficulties of rural pubs, or the problem with vague alibis, and how many more women can have “shapely figures“?  One that really jarred: when a woman reacts to being addressed as ‘My dear’, she gives the guilty party “a daggers-drawn look at the sexist endearment“; does it need to be spelt out, do we really need that ‘sexist’?  And one despairs at “Rumour had it she had more shoes than Imelda Marcos.”

I’m not saying never mind, but I am still looking forward to the next book.



Read Full Post »

Peter Robinson - Children of the revolutionAt a certain stage in Peter Robinson‘s latest DCI Banks mystery, Children of the revolution (Hodder, 2013), two of the women in his team are driving to interview someone who can help them with their enquiries:

Annie said it was a relief not to have to suffer Banks’s musical tastes for a change. Gerry admitted that she didn’t understand half the pop-culture references he made. Annie said it was an age thing.

And you do begin to wonder about his creator’s ‘demographic’.  Because while I get most of those references – I’ll be honest, it was one of the things that got me into the whole Banks saga – I wonder if he’s not overdoing it these days.  That’s rhetorical, by the way, because I suspect he’s straying too far from one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, at least 8 of which he pretty much complies with (and there’s less made of the North Yorkshire landscape here), to whit numero dix: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip“,

He can still drive a narrative masterfully enough – a lot of it’s in the passages of shortish dialogue – but I’ve reached the point where I feel I don’t need to know what posters are on everyone’s wall, or what books, CDs and DVDs are on their shelves, a signifying technique much in evidence of late which I’m guessing a lot of readers are just going to walk on by.  Worst here, actually signifying very little, unless it’s a private joke, is having Lisa, an interesting young woman getting her life back together again after a load of bad stuff, reading a book on this year’s Booker Prize short list which is going to mean very little to most readers of crime fiction, I would wager*.

OK.  Children of the revolution is the 21st Alan Banks mystery and another of those taking their title from a popular song, in this case an opus from Marc Bolan’s T.Rex – not the most profound from its period, it has to be said, and the poppiest of the titles previously used – and less apt than the Karl Marx quote Robinson kicks off with about the past lying “like a nightmare upon the present“.  The case, the probable murder of just one man, involves happenings 40 years ago in the heady days of student revolt – or at least Essex, 1971-3 (the same period Robinson was at Leeds) and the strike that the miners won; there’s another strand centred on staff and students at a local college in the here and now.  We have been this way before, but’s it’s an intriguing plot that becomes more nuanced than his boss’s “Is that what it is, Alan? … That working class chip on your shoulder again?” suggests, as suspicions of the involvement of the rich and famous surface.

I would hazard that, despite the murder, blackmail and date-rape plot-lines, Children of the revolution is lighter in tone than its predecessors – are those jokes looming on the horizon?  As an instance, after a stormy argument between two of the three women who make up Banks’s team, after they have left his cottage, he puts Miles Davis’s Bitches brew on the hi-fi.  That his team consists of three women – Annie Cabot included, but relatively peripherally – is not otherwise commented on one way or another, and Winsome’s character blossoms here.  The compassion, while still very much in evidence – how could it not be? – is gentler, less bracing.

Inevitably the occupational hazard of the long distance crime novelist rears it head, with it being put to Banks that his next step is either promotion (which postpones compulsory retirement) or, indeed, retirement; the odds are on promotion, but please, Mr Robinson, save us from the New Tricks gambit.

I also think that more of Peter Robinson, the successful writer, is creeping into the text; nor is DCI Banks, the television series, being ignored.  One of the major non-regular characters is a successful novelist with all the travail that entails, and when the team visit a location shoot for a tv crime series (plot line: drowned valley dries out), a gofer tells them:

We’ve got the author coming in this afternoon – the author of the books the series is based on – and I have to take care of him. We like to keep the authors happy. That way they don’t complain too much about what we do to their books.

Like the television series, and unlike the earlier books, no time is spent back at the office looking out over the market square.

What else?  Banks is drinking less but his love life might well be picking up at the end, where he’s taking Oriana, a good looking, intelligent and interesting younger woman, first encountered in the investigation, out to a folk club, and the prospects are looking good.  Corny, but I’ll let it go: another weight on one side of the retirement scales, just maybe.?  Musically, we start off with the Grateful Dead and there’s a nice plot-related running line in Van Morrison references, while there’s less classical music and Banks manages to visit Leeds without visiting the HMV store.  (You can find more details of stuff like this, and more observations on Children of the revolution in the context of the Banks series, in the more schematized rendition you can find here (just click on these underlined lines) on one of the most visited webpages here on Lillabullero.

As ever, though I can always find things to cavil at, I await the next installment of Banks’s life with interest.  I’m not sure Annie’s out the frame yet either (there’s a loaded Van Morrison quote floating out there).  But there’s one specific thing I do find very hard to take, and that is the prospect of DCI Alan Banks burdening the world with a downloaded ringtone, with … a “gentle blues riff” on his mobile.

*Ruth Ozeki’s A tale for the time being, so you know; I’ve just looked it up, and hey, maybe one to pursue – I see mention of Eels‘s physicist dad (and there I go) – so it makes sense for Lisa, but nevertheless …

Meanwhile, 1900 years previously, in the city that was to become York …

Semper fidelisAlways a delightful prospect – a new Ruso and Tilla novel from the pen (or word processor) of Ruth Downie – and Semper Fidelis: a novel of the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury, 2013) does not disappoint.  I think I’ve said it before, but Ruso, the Roman medicus and reluctant investigator, and Tilla, his spirited British bride, are one of the great double acts of contemporary literature.  How about:

Ruso had already noted with relief that the young man’s black eye and swollen jaw were too mature to have been administered by his wife.

for starters, or

Women were good at filling embarrassing silences. Except for Tilla, who was good at creating them.

To broaden the focus somewhat, Ruth Downie, I think you can see if you’re not already acquainted, is a splendid prose stylist, a phrase-maker with a gloriously sardonic touch.  In the opening chapter she engages by explaining Ruso’s situation concisely when he sees a woman who was “attractive in a way that would have distracted him on better days.”  I loved this:

Kitchen staff and bathers were thus obliged to traverse long corridors lined with gloomy wards whose shuttered windows would have offered a fine view of native weeds strangling the herbs in the courtyard.

and Semper Fidelis is full of astute observations like

Ruso hurried to catch up with the tribune, who was doing a good job of striding purposefully about and looking as though he knew what to do next.

We are treated here to a view of the Romans as occupying force, not necessarily cilvilisers; colonisers who have a way to go yet convincing all the natives in the matter of what the Romans ever did for you.  These are cultures in transition, ideologies in conflict.  Nowhere is the clash between the two cultures as deliciously portrayed as when Tilla,  no slouch, learning to read latin with the help of a poetry collection, complains:

If one of our poets had spoken this rubbish,” she said, tying it closed, “nobody would pass it on, and it would be forgotten, and good riddance. But this man wrote everything down, and now it floats about like somebody else’s hair in the bath. Who cares if his lady’s pet sparrow is dead?”

Elsewhere, Tilla tells Ruso (“a man whose religion consisted mostly of half-formed and unanswered questions“) that she has “prayed to Christos” for him  (“I wish you wouldn’t keep doing that,” he says) while as back-up she’ll  “… find a place to leave a gift for the goddess, just in case.”  That’s a genuflection to a Christianity which is still a rebel cause and a nod to the old tradition as Plan B.

Oh yeah, and while we’re having all this fun there are dastardly deeds going down, murders to be investigated – this is an historical crime novel after all.  The deaths of British recruits undergoing initial army training (inspired, as Ruth acknowledges on her website, by the events at the Coldcut Barracks in Surrey, 1995-2002) take place against a backdrop of all that fresh-paint-and-polish nonsense when royalty comes a-visiting the provinces, in this case it’s the Emperor Hadrian come to see the progress being made on that Wall;  his wife, Sabina, takes an interesting view – on her reluctant participation in both the grand tour and her marriage – which sits neatly in the larger tale as it unfolds.  All this is effectively driven along with some satisfying plot swerves with shifting allegiances to keep us on our toes, and excitement, tension and derring-do a-plenty thrown in along the way.  It’s a tremendous read.

Semper Fidelis is the fifth of Ruth Downie‘s Ruso and Tilla novels, but the first to boast a unified title with the American editions.  I would say thankfully if it weren’t for the fact that I think they’ve been unified in the wrong direction, but Ruth is appreciated more in the States, so what do I know.  Previous books in the UK, where authorship was credited to R.S.Downie (the old ‘don’t trust them to know she’s a woman’ scam, a là R.K.Rowling, though I think at least Ruth’s S is real), came out as a series with titles starting Ruso and the … .  Obviously these would have to be extended now to Ruso and Till and the … (“I hear one of our officers has married you,” Sabina, the Emperor Hadrian’s wife, says to Tilla, who responds, “I have married him also, mistress“) but this might make it a bit long for the jacket graphics.  Shame to lose the branding, though, especially now that we have to make do with a well-known latin phrase or saying, which might cause problems – finding le mot juste (or ius eloquium if Google translate is to be trusted) as they run out of said phrases – as the series continues.  Whichever, long may it do so.


Read Full Post »

I’ve come round to DCI Banks, the television adaptations, now in their 2nd series, of Peter Robinson‘s Inspector Banks sequence of novels.  I’ve managed to divorce Stephen Tompkinson (and his height) from his other myriad roles, and, stripped of the specifics that riddle the books, the tv team seem to have arrived at the essence of the man and the case in hand, benefiting from the visual short hand, from the lack of prose needed to set a scene.  Not that the tv shows are that strong on the sense of place you get in the books, but we’re not exactly competing with Heartbeat, for which much thanks.

The page here at Lillabullero, collecting my various postings – some systematic – covering the whole sequence of books featuring Alan Banks, has been one of the most visited on the site.  As you might see, I drifted into a format when catching up on the earlier titles, and I’ll try to stick to that – albeit expanded – here.

I need to say that I read Watching the dark (Hodder, 2012) pretty much straight through and with enthusiasm, and that I eagerly await whatever comes next in the saga.  Peter Robinson, for all my reservations about his unspectacular, at times mundane, prose and dialogue, keeps the flow going superbly and the compassion that makes Banks special is still in evidence.  But it strikes me that, just as in the previous Banks novel two years ago, Banks has stabilised – he’s getting on – and interests his creator less than before.  The book really comes alive with the women – old flame and colleague Annie Cabbot, of course, but also the new woman, Joanna from professional Standards, plus a returnee from the books of yore.  (The same thing happened with Ian Rankin and Siobhan, I think.)

I shall also record here my belief that real life, the post-Glasnost growth of East European crime gangs in Europe has not been particularly advantageous to British crime fiction – character seems to be lost – and the Complaints, or the Professional Standards crew are becoming somewhat tedious as plot drivers.  In Watching the dark Robinson does manage to transcend their dead hand for a lot of the time at least .  Anyway …

Themes and settings: The usual Yorkshire Moors plus Estonia.  The exploitation of migrant workers doubled with vicious loan sharking and unsolved disappearances abroad. East European crime gangs, police corruption, the Complaints (Professional standards).
Murderee/s Ageing detective, Bill Quinn, crossbowed in a police convalescent home; Corrigan, a gang boss; Rachel, a young woman who hadn’t returned from a hen night in Talinn 6 years previously.
Boss: Area Commander Catherine Gervaise. (Banks likes and respects her).
Music: The book’s title is from a 3CD Richard Thompson retrospective box set. Mournful, contemplative, on the whole, not much joy.  Mainstream classical plus modern composers like Arvo Pärt; nigglingly specifying particular performers.  Some folk (June Tabor’s Ashore album), some cool jazz.  Too much to list in full, but:

  • Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, 4th choral movement. (“Was this something that happened when you got older? Failing eyesight, mysterious aches and pains, enjoying Mahler? Would Wagner be next?”)
  • on the ritual visit to Leeds HMV, Banks purchases Kate Royal’s A lesson in love (soprano, lieder) and Martin Carthy
  • folk night at the Dog & Gun: Penny Cartwright, folk singer from back in the second book, performing; subject matter of folk song addressed; she does Dylan’s Red River Shore and a version of Pulp’s Common people, which works but “he’d never been able to take Jarvis Cocker seriously” !!  What??

Distinguishing characteristics: as a novel it comes most alive – until the Estonia trip really gets going – with the women.  Winsome tells him he’s being childish about the Complaints.  But see also Food and Drink below.
State of marriage/relationships:  Nothing happening really. Nods of memories for ex-wife Sandra and Annie Cabbot; you half expect it, but not even much of a frisson with Joanna from Professional Standards (the next book, maybe?).  The folk singer interests him, briefly: “He thought of Penny again and knew he shouldn’t read anything into her friendly behaviour. It was just her way; she was a free spirit, a bit flirtatious, mischievous. Still, he couldn’t help but hope. It seemed that nothing had cured him of that. Not Sandra. Not Annie. Not Sophia.
Food and drink: consumption down. Pretty much off the whisky, though knocking back the wine (“He did his best thinking when he was listening to music and drinking wine.”). Greggs sausage rolls and grabbed snacks Prèt.  Shandy because he’s driving, refuses a second. Still favours Black Sheep ale. He’s actually got camomile and green tea as well as Earl Grey in the cottage.

  • Banks would get along with Nobby very well, Annie thought. He placed as much value in the vague and philosophical...”
  • Sometimes Banks wondered whether there was any innocence left in the world, and he felt terribly old.
  • Corrigan is  “Just another in the long line of sad, tired, cocky, depressing villains that seemed to be Banks’s daily round.
  • Rachel’s parents’ house is “… tragic in its ordinariness.”
  • Joanna laughed. ‘Oh, you’re not as bad as you like to make out. There’d be no point doing a report on you. Nothing to put in it. Boring.
  • Annie: “He was crap at presents, Banks, but at least he tried.

Pedant’s corner: The prose.  I may be being picky here, but does this description of Banks’s relationship with his dead brother’s Porsche – “Now it was getting a bit shabby and starting to feel comfortable, like a favourite old jacket, jeans, or a pair of gloves […]” – really need all three articles of apparel?  Too many words here, too: “Her jeans were not the kind you had to put on with a shoehorn, but they certainly showed off the curves of her hips, rear end and legs.”  Never mind unnecessary – go back and read some Raymond Chandler.

Read Full Post »

How do you keep up a performance like David Haig‘s in Alan Bennett‘s The madness of George III night after night?  The mere thought of the sheer physical demands sap the sinews.  His portrayal of the distraught, bewildered, gibbering motormouth wreck of a mad monarch, suffering terribly in the grips of his delirium, was a tour de force at MK Theatre last week , and one not soon forgotten.  He could still give an outing to the talented comic actor he is to good effect in the before and after periods of Bennett’s play, but I find it hard to recall anything comparable to the sense of dismay, desolation and concern that spread through the theatre towards the end of the play’s first act as the malady worsened.  The relief that flowed from the respite of George’s agony – and the state’s paralysis – as the plain Lincolnshire doctor worked his remedy in the second half, was palpable.  Bennett’s throwing in of a small group reading of King Lear – with George as Lear and directing  – as things progressed, was beaitifully done.

As a whole the play was – I have to borrow the word from Michael Billington’s review of the production, which I really shouldn’t have read before writing this, only I think he got it right – too scene-shiftingly choppy.  Not helped by a symbolic set – doorways standing for rooms, picture frames for pictures – behind the elaborate court uniforms; it works better in the film, the unseen editor’s hand whisking things smoothly along.  Written in 1991, the political nuances have shifted somewhat – the  balancing of budgets (Pitt the Younger: tell ’em it’s worse so you can take the credit when things improve!), a prince in waiting.  It’s one of my historical blind spots, but the opportunist allying of the radical reformer Fox with the fop in waiting (George IV as was to become) left little old democrat me decidely uncomfortable.

Worth mentioning too, was the fun (and horror) to be had with the uselessness of the court doctors throughout.  Apparently the original ’90s production had a modern medical appendix, a twentieth century doc coming on stage to explain what is now thought to be the nature of the illness – porphyria, for what it’s worth – and I don’t really see why it was cut this time around, especially for cheapskates like us who don’t buy overpriced programmes.  Nevertheless, a memorable evening.

Obviously this (on the right) is not the edition of Evelyn Waugh‘s novel, A handful of dust (1934), that I read for book group but I’m a sucker for old dust jacket design.  The one I read – Penguin Modern Classics (1997) – came complete with copious annotations (annoyingly, most of the time, telling me what I already knew –  but I suppose the young might need ’em – and annoyingly not there when I did) and an alternative – for original American publication – ending.  Given what I took for granted was his basic reputation for lifelong sycophancy of the upper classes, not to mention his conversion to Catholicism (Brideshead and all that) I was expecting to hate it, was looking forward to hating it, even.  What I was not prepared for was the scalpel in his pen, this ruthless clinical examination of the amorality and chilling shallowness of ’30s high society and its hangers-on, laid out for all to see in the action.

These people … the only ones you could warm to were dim, dull and decent dynasty head Tony (though the dim and dull made it frustratingly luke warm) and Milly, the night club hostess who accompanies him for a weekend in Brighton (to set up the grounds for a divorce that his awful wife, Brenda, not he, wanted) who brings her young daughter along for a subsidised day at the seaside.  (The whole ritual divorce procedure palaver is beautifully played.)  No, normally I can’t live with a fiction where there’s no-one to feel much positive for or care about, but I was riveted by the prose, the style, the economic and yet vivid description, the quality of the dialogue, the wit.  I’ll just throw out a select few aperçus:

  • there’s Brenda’s brother, in Tunisia, “where he was occupied desecrating some tombs
  • and Dr Messenger, who, “though quite young, was bearded, and Tony knew few young men with beards.
  • at the end of a list of staff supported in the family pile (the upstairs/downstairs crowd) we have “odd little men constantly popping in to wind the clocks and cook the accounts
  • Beaver – the bad guy wimp – arrives somewhere “in a state of high self-approval

The book is in two halves.  First set in England up to the end of the marriage and the tragic death of their son, and then Tony’s attempt at getting away from it all, a disastrous and disturbing – we’re touching Heart of darkness territory here – exploration in search of a lost South American city.  The alternative ending is even more depressing than the main one in which he dies.  In the alternative he returns, she chickens out and they don’t divorce: “There was deep twilight inside the car.”  I suspect I shall be reading  more of early Waugh.

Peter Robinson could never be accused of being a premier league prose stylist but he pulls you along well enough, especially with D.I. Banks on hand.  His detective is absent from Before the poison (Hodder, 2011) though we’re still deep in the North Yorkshire Moors (and its pubs), albeit with not entirely necessary tourist guide visits to France and South Africa as side dishes.  The central mystery at the heart of Before the poison – the guilt or not of a woman hung in 1953 for the alleged murder of her husband in the house the narrator has just moved into (and if not not, why?) –  intrigues most of the time, though I have to say my heart sank when the potential revelation of a history of pedophilia raised its head, and the actual denouement felt a bit detached.  I wasn’t convinced, to tell the truth, by narrator Chris, wife-grieving rich Hollywood film soundtrack composer (the joke about “the music that nobody listens to” is used more than once) and his remote purchase by email and phone of a remote mansion far too big for a single 60-year-old man – for all his grief – going back to his roots at the onset of winter.  (At least he wasn’t an ageing ex-rock god.)  Compared to Waugh’s economy there’s too much repetition in his wondering why he’s obsessed with Grace Fox – why not? – and although the divulgence to us of one personal revelation in this regard comes as something of a shock, when you think about it … it’s not that big a deal.  My having just experienced the sharpness of Evelyn Waugh’s dialogue probably didn’t help by comparison either.

Chapters are consistently structured, beginning with extracts from an account of Grace’s trial in the Famous trials series of books (you rember, those green Penguins), followed by episodes detailing Chris’s fortunes in settling in, socializing, investigating etc. not forgetting what he ate (do I care?) and what he listened to (this is Peter Robinson, after all); further along, the extracts are drawn from Grace’s harrowing war journal, – she served as a nurse overseas in Singapore and France – which explain her state of mind at the trial, even if one wonders how and when she got a chance to put pencil to paper in those boats.  I’m not sure these documents work as well as they should, but the book has the potential to be a great film, with a sure chance of an Oscar for whoever gets to play Grace.  There is one unforgivable moment of pure corn involving a cigarette case and, inevitably, a bullet.

Don’t get me wrong, I read it pretty much straight through and it has its moments and its people: the fascinating Grace, of course; her young artist lover, who we meet in his 80s in Paris; the courtship of Chris and the estate agent who sold him the property (GSOH); how it was for families growing up in the vicinity of a prison where executions took place (in our lifetime!); a certain tension as Grace’s story unfolds.  I look forward to the next Banks.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: