Almost 30 years ago, in his 1987 novel, “Gallows View,” Peter Robinson introduced the character of Alan Banks, a London police detective who had moved to the Yorkshire Dales for a quieter life. Which he found, for a while at least. Certainly, the crimes that Banks first encountered seem almost quaint now — “Gallows View” features a peeping Tom, some glue-sniffing teenagers, a bit of robbery and a murder — and the rural England that Robinson depicted was still a quiet, intimate place. The landscape of detective fiction, too, was less crowded. No Kurt Wallander in sight yet, no “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” no tartan noir. Yet even in today’s harsher environment and thronged field, the Inspector Banks series endures by staying put, in Yorkshire and in the quotidian realm of the police procedural.
“Children of the Revolution,” the latest novel in the series, is rooted not only in the place that Banks now knows so well, the Yorkshire Dales, but also in the era that radicalized his generation, however fleetingly. “We were young, naive, privileged intellectuals,” one character admits of her revolutionary youth in the 1970s. “There were people around then with the real will and power to do things, to change things, to do it violently, if necessary. . . . I was a bit too queasy for that.” Lady Veronica Chalmers, once known as Ronnie Bellamy, is recalling in particular late 1971, early ’72 and the tumultuous miners’ strike in England, a time when, a former comrade of hers observes, “We had Marxists, Trotskyists and International Socialists all over the place.” Protesting students opened their dorm rooms to politicized miners for fraternization and fornication. “It was like a D.H. Lawrence novel come to life,” a graying academic tells a shocked young detective constable.
But what does all this have to do with the body of Gavin Miller, found horribly broken on a winter’s morning on a disused railway line? The retired college professor was a lonely, perhaps dissolute man, Banks senses when he enters Miller’s isolated cottage. “The cream wall-to-wall carpet was marked by two large wine or coffee stains the shape of Australia and Africa,” he notes, “the wallpaper was peeling in places . . . and a few cheap framed abstract prints hung on the rose-patterned walls.” None of which seems to fit with the 5,000 pounds found on Miller’s body or the record of a recent telephone call to Lady Veronica, whose nephew is poised to become England’s next home secretary.
Battling the short, dark, midwinter days, Banks and his team begin the tedious business of piecing together the life of a murder victim. Robinson has always excelled at conveying the ordinariness of a criminal investigation: the cups of weak coffee or strong tea offered in cramped living rooms, the dead ends and fruitless digging.
In “Children of the Revolution,” the revelations are even more muted than in previous novels and the deceptions more tawdry. “Everybody lies,” Banks tells his longtime colleague, Detective Inspector Annie Cabot, with more weariness than bitterness. He is, after all, old, at least in the eyes of his keen, new detective constable and his hard-bitten area commander, who horrifies Banks by suggesting that he consider retiring. Even at the outset of this, the most elegiac of Robinson’s novels, Banks confesses to feeling “encrusted with death, heavy with it” as he sips his red wine, listens to Miles Davis and contemplates a career littered with corpses.
Instead of going quietly, however, Banks, true to form, ruffles some powerful feathers when he insists that Lady Veronica’s relationship to the dead man, however distant and slim, is the link connecting the past not only to the present but also to the murder. The truth that emerges is satisfyingly plain but complicated by politics and even by murmurings of espionage.
“Should I be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my days?” Banks asks when he is confronted with a familiar nemesis, the slick Mr. Browne of MI5. “We’ll keep an eye on you,” Browne replies, “the way we always do. I hear rumors of a promotion. That should be nice.” Robinson wisely leaves it at that, infusing the final chapter with just a whiff of the genteel menace that Browne and his political masters exude. No wonder the novel’s sunshiny ending, an uncharacteristic false step, seems as unlikely as a heatwave in winter.
Mundow frequently reviews mysteries for The Washington Post.
CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION
By Peter Robinson
Morrow. 336 pp. $25.99