Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Robinson Sheds Some Light on “Dark”

2013 begins my third year as a blogger-columnist for the Kirkus Reviews Web site. Together with this numerical change in the calendar come some conspicuous alterations in the site’s appearance. My Mysteries and Thrillers column, along with others focusing on different genres of fiction and categories of books, has undergone a redesign that I think gives it added snap and precision. The downside, unfortunately, is that hundreds of Facebook “likes” seem to have vanished ... though that’s still not as bad as what happened during a previous design revision, when dozens of reader comments were swallowed up into the electronic ether, never to be seen or read again.

In any event, my opening column of 2013, posted earlier today, is an interview with Peter Robinson, the 62-year-old, British-born Canadian author of Watching the Dark (Morrow). That police procedural--released this week in the States (and last summer in the UK)--is the 20th to feature Robinson’s popular series sleuth, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, along with Banks’ colleague and former lover, Annie Cabbot. The story finds the headstrong DCI investigating the unusual crossbow murder of a fellow inspector, Bill Quinn, who left behind some rather compromising photographs of himself with “a very beautiful, and very young, woman.” Whether the late copper’s demise is related to that sexual encounter, or maybe to a six-year-old case he had continued to pursue, involving the disappearance of a young British bridesmaid in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, will be up to Banks to determine. But his job won’t be made any easier by an officer from Professional Standards, who’s determined to dog Banks’ every step in order to resolve whether Quinn was guilty of corruption as well as concupiscence.

Click here to read my new Kirkus column about Robinson.

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While putting that piece together, of course, I had to jettison large parts of my discussion with the author; they simply didn’t fit within the length restriction. Not being one to waste good material, I have posted the balance of our exchange below.

J. Kingston Pierce: When I last interviewed you, back in 1999, you were still considered an underappreciated Canadian crime writer. But that was before your 10th Banks novel, In a Dry Season, really took off. Am I correct in calling that your “breakout book”? And how have your career and audience reception changed over the last 13 years?

Peter Robinson: In a Dry Season was certainly a “breakout book” in many ways. It was nominated for several awards, even won a couple, and got my name better known in the UK and throughout mainland Europe. It was also very successful in the U.S., although I’m not sure it gave me the same sort of boost in Canada, as I was already better known there than in most other places. The biggest change of all really came in the UK. I was used to being practically ignored there for about 10 books, barely surviving with very limited print runs of the last few hardcovers, and no paperbacks at all for a while. Now my books regularly top the bestseller charts there.

JKP: Are there any negative aspects to producing a successful series?

PR: Only in that it becomes what people expect of you. I was extremely pleased with the fan reaction to Before the Poison because it was a risk, and most people said they loved it. There was still an undercurrent of “but I’m looking forward to the next Banks” in some responses, though! Still, it is also enormously flattering to think you’ve created a series character about whom people want to continue reading, especially when you see so many series fall by the wayside.

JKP: Do you ever want to toss in the idea of writing a series at all, and just compose standalones? Or maybe a different series?

PR: No, I can’t see dumping the series altogether, and I don’t think I would like to take on another series, but I would definitely like to write more standalones. I have always admired Ruth Rendell and envied her ability to switch from [Chief Inspector Reginald] Wexford to psychological thrillers, and to “Barbara Vine.” I’m not as prolific as she is, but I could see alternating Banks and standalones, or maybe two Banks then a one-off. Something like that.

JKP: Unlike some other series, your 20 books about Alan Banks have allowed the character to change and evolve in significant ways over the decades. He’s weathered the end of his marriage, the growth of his children, assorted ill-conceived relationships, and the retirements of several police colleagues. Do you think all of that has made him more human in the eyes of readers? And are you puzzled by writers less willing to let their characters evolve?

PR: I don’t think I would still be writing about Banks if I hadn’t set out quite early on to compose a series about a man who happened to work as a police detective, and about some of the things that happen to him in his work and in his life. I just had no idea it would run to more than 20 books!

I’m not really puzzled by writers who are less willing to let their characters evolve. After all, neither Sherlock Holmes nor Hercule Poirot changed that much. Sometimes a character exists simply to solve crimes in a particularly clever and eccentric way, and that is all that interests us about him or her. I think a lot of readers identify with Banks, and perhaps the things that happen in his private life, including his quiet moments with music and a glass of wine, do make him more human and make the cases he works on seem more real, or at least more believable. Also, as he ages, he encounters many of the same problems most of us do--children move away, friends die, one’s time seems to be running out more quickly, the specter of serious illness appears--and it tends to make him more introspective and philosophical, even melancholy.

JKP: When Banks’ younger colleague, Annie Cabbot, first appeared in In a Dry Season, I presumed that she was finally somebody in whose company he could be happy. Yet their relationship has been often troubled. Did you intend that from the start?

PR: I don’t even know what’s going to happen in the book I’m writing at the moment, let alone in future books. I think the Banks/Annie relationship has developed in interesting ways that I would never have guessed when I first put them together. They are still very close, and there’s still a strong attraction, but in many ways it is the job that keeps them apart. ... Banks needs to be kept on his toes, and Annie is particularly good at winding him up. It’s interesting to see her role change subtly as other female characters appear on the scene--such as [Detective Constable] Winsome [Jackman], Joanna Passero, and the new detective constable Gerry Masterson, who takes a more prominent role in the book I’m working on now. Annie becomes in some ways a public defender of her boss and his methods, but she still gives him a hard time when there’s no one else around to hear.

JKP: So let me ask this: You keep throwing new feminine enticements in Alan Banks’ path. In Watching the Dark, you introduce that woman you just mentioned, Inspector Joanna Passero, from Professional Standards. Can we expect to see more of her in the future?

PR: I wish I knew. I can see a role for Joanna, because I grew to like her as a character, and she may well become another cross for Banks to bear. She will move out of Professional Standards and into some other department with which Banks will have to deal on occasion. As far as romance goes, I have no idea. He might like the idea of unleashing the repressed passions of an icy Hitchcock blonde, but are there any to be unleashed, and could he do it? And how would Annie feel about it? Watch this space.

JKP: How old is Alan Banks now, and how many more years do you think he has as a series lead? Will you keep him going even after retirement, as Ian Rankin seems determined to do with John Rebus?

PR: Banks’ age is a tricky matter, because although there’s usually one book per year, the cases he works on may have taken place only months apart, so he hasn’t actually aged a whole year between books. This keeps him a few years younger than me and a few steps away from retirement. If he ever gets promoted to superintendent he could stay on until the age of 65, but I doubt if any of my readers would regard Banks as suitable material for promotion! But retiring Banks is not something I worry about too much. There are still a few books left to write about him, and I just hope I realize when I have come to the end. I doubt even then that I would retire him or kill him off. I’d probably have him promoted, against all odds, to chief constable, marry Annie, and live happily ever after. Then there would be nothing more to write about him--or nothing that anyone would want to read.

JKP: What still attracts you to the character of Alan Banks?

PR: In the face of everything he has seen and learned about the human condition, and in spite of everything that has happened to him, he still enjoys life, believes in people, and has a generally optimistic outlook. No matter how much life
and work throw at him, he always manages to get up, dust himself off, and carry on.

(Left) The DCI Banks pilot, based on the 2001 novel Aftermath.

JKP: Your novels have inspired a British ITV series, DCI Banks, which is debuting this month in America on PBS-TV stations. How do you feel about actor Stephen Tompkinson stepping into the lead role you’ve spent so many years in developing?

PR: I have tremendous respect for Stephen Tompkinson, and though he certainly didn’t match my idea of what Banks looks like, I think that he has developed the character wonderfully over the series so far. Many viewers may be disappointed that he doesn’t match their physical idea of Banks, either, but my advice is to give him a chance and approach the series with an open mind. No, it’s not the same as the books, but it is an entertaining TV cop show.

JKP: ITV hasn’t yet produced episodes of DCI Banks based on every one of your series installments. Have you been surprised at all by which books it has chosen to adapt?

PR: I have no idea why they choose the books they do. They’re the professionals, so far be it from me to tell them their business. We’ve have some discussions, and while they welcome my suggestions, they are obviously more aware of what will work and what won’t. I would like to see some of the more recent ones filmed--Friend of the Devil is the most recent [book transformed into a DCI Banks episode] so far--and I would also like to see an attempt at In a Dry Season, though I admit that would really be a challenge after the weather in Yorkshire last year. The other novel with a hook into the past which I think could work well is Piece of My Heart, but I doubt that we’d be able to get Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Who to sign up, though Pete Townshend is an affirmed Banks fan.

JKP: Of course, there might be opportunities to turn some of your standalone novels into TV or movie productions.

PR: I have never done an adaptation, and I’ve been told often enough that a writer would be a fool to adapt his own work, but I’d really like to have a go at Before the Poison. It presents all kinds of problems that I think would be interesting to try and solve, and could make a really good mini-series or something. I can even see Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, as Grace Fox!

JKP: Finally, you’re a British writer working in Canada, who rarely stages scenes in Canada. Yet there are many Canadian crime novelists--most of whom, unfortunately, are completely unknown to American readers. Why do think that is? Is it simply a matter of poor marketing, or are the tales Canadian crime novelists tell not the sort destined to appeal to U.S. crime-fiction fans?

PR: It’s probably a bit of both. Canadian publishers don’t do a great deal of out-of-Canada promotion, and Canadian writers rarely have separate U.S. deals. Also, I’m not sure that the majority of Americans are interested in reading about Canada, though the ones who are are quite passionate and knowledgeable about the place. A number of Canadian crime writers try to get over this lack of interest by setting their books in the U.S., so you probably think they’re American writers, anyway!

JKP: Can you recommend a few Canadian crime-fictionists whose work might be interesting to American readers?

PR: You may have heard of some of these, but crime fans should definitely try Giles Blunt, Louise Penny, Linwood Barclay, Maureen Jennings, John Lawrence Reynolds, and Gail Bowen. There are many more, and they will hate me for not mentioning their names, but if anyone is interested in Canadian crime fiction they can check out the Crime Writers of Canada Web site.

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In the video below, Peter Robinson looks back at how he went about developing his new Alan Banks novel, Watching the Dark.


Ricky Bush said...

Well, lets just get some new comments flowing. Great interview!!!

Kelly Robinson said...

I'm looking forward to the TV series, but I hate to say that the book series really started seeming phoned in at some point. When I think how beautiful some of the writing is in some of the mid-range books (when Robinson hit his stride), it saddens me that some of the later ones seem so rushed. I blame publishing contracts. When people write out of obligation rather than when they're ready to tell a story, it happens.