Saturday, October 08, 2022

Peter Robinson Signs Off

The first time I met Peter Robinson was across a table at a quiet, modern café in Vancouver, British Columbia’s hip Kitsilano neighborhood. It was the summer of 1999, and I had ventured north from Seattle for the explicit purpose of talking to that 49-year-old, British-born author whose latest police procedural, In a Dry Season—his 10th in a dozen years to feature Yorkshire-area Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks—had been winning plaudits from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. (It would go on, in 2000, to capture both an Anthony Award and a Barry Award for Best Novel.)

I couldn’t help but recall that long-ago meeting as I read the news of Robinson’s sudden demise on October 4, following what’s been described as “a brief illness.” He was only 72 years old.

Robinson wore a dark blue sports jacket, a white shirt, beige slacks, and a face congenitally prone toward smiling. After years of doing publicity tours on behalf of his books, he seemed entirely comfortable talking about himself and his literary endeavors with an American journalist more than slightly awed by his interviewee’s success. At the time, I had only just read In a Dry Season. I knew some basic facts of Robinson’s life—that he’d been born in 1950 in the Armley district of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England; that he’d graduated with a B.A. Honours Degree in English Literature from the University of Leeds, before relocating to Canada in 1974 and earning a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Ontario’s University of Windsor (no less than Joyce Carol Oates had served as his tutor!); that he had gone on to achieve a Ph.D. in English at York University in Toronto; and that he’d introduced Banks in his first published novel, 1987’s Gallows View. I knew, too, that his fifth Banks book, Past Reason Hated (1991), had won the Crime Writers of Canada’s prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. But I could claim only scant knowledge of his initial nine Banks yarns, and probably as a result of nervousness, I kept referring to his wife, Sheila Halladay, as “Sandra,” that being the name of Alan Banks’ estranged spouse.

In the end, it may only have been my sincere enthusiasm for his new novel that prevented Robinson from questioning my authority to conduct this lengthy interview. I subsequently wrote about it in January Magazine, recounting the plot of In a Dry Season as follows:
The drama kicks off with the discovery of a skeleton, hidden since World War II in a reservoir-flooded hamlet called Hobb’s End, but recently exposed by a drought. Since the bones appear to be those of a murdered woman, the police in nearby Eastvale are alerted, and out comes Detective Chief Inspector Banks to investigate. He expects this to be a “dirty, pointless, dead-end case,” and sees his assignment to it as just another means by which his vindictive boss, Chief Constable Jeremiah (“Jimmy”) Riddle, can punish him for previous insubordination. However, as Banks and a local detective sergeant, Annie Cabbot, re-create the crime scene, bringing Hobb’s End figuratively back to life through the memories of its ex-inhabitants, they come to realize the obvious hardships—and hidden passions—of wartime Yorkshire. They’re also drawn by the story of their murder victim, Gloria Shackleton, a curvaceous and somewhat brazen young woman who’d ventured into the country to help with the farming, but wound up marrying a young soldier who was later reported killed in Southeast Asia.

Throughout this tale, author Robinson weaves the text of a memoir, written by septuagenarian detective novelist Vivian Elmsley, that sheds additional light on life in Hobb’s End. Its mixing of viewpoints and mounting suspense makes
In a Dry Season a most absorbing and satisfying read.
For about a decade and a half after making Peter Robinson’s acquaintance, I stayed in infrequent touch with him. We’d get together for lunch whenever his book-promotion duties brought him to Seattle, to talk about fiction writing and music (another of his major passions), and to catch up one each other’s lives. (His U.S. publisher, William Morrow, kindly picked up the tab.) I would search him out at Bouchercons, if I knew he and I were both in attendance. And I took the opportunity—via e-mail—to interview him again, in 2013 (this time for Kirkus Reviews), after his 20th Banks novel, Watching the Dark, reached print. I also kept up with his growing series, and went back to sample his earliest Banks titles.

Those later years were good to Robinson. His series inspired a 2010-2016 ITV crime drama, DCI Banks, starring Stephen Tompkinson (who the author confessed “certainly didn’t match my idea of what Banks looks like”), with Andrea Lowe filling the shoes of Annie Cabbot (even though she certainly didn’t match my idea of what Banks’ colleague and onetime romantic interest looked like). He continued to produce fresh Banks outings, with some time left over to pen short stories and the occasional standalone novel. Writing prizes and nominations flowed his way. His suspenseful one-off, Before the Poison (2012), picked up both an Arthur Ellis Award and a Martin Beck Award, and his Banks book Sleeping in the Ground scored the Ellis for Best Crime Novel of 2018. Finally, in 2020, he was presented with the Crime Writers of Canada’s Grand Master Award, which likely made that British émigré glad to have long-ago crossed the pond.

The Bookseller reports that Robinson “sold nearly 3.7 million” books in the UK alone, with his 17th DCI Banks installment, Friend of the Devil (2008), being the “all-time bestseller at almost 167,000 copies.”

Through it all, at least in my experience, he remained a kind, thoughtful, generous, and often dryly humorous gent, an exceptional storyteller (especially with beer in hand), much devoted to his art and absent the arrogance and boastfulness that might have clung to a writer of such accomplishments. His editor at the UK publishing house Hodder & Stoughton, Carolyn Mays, told the BBC: “Much that he did was done without fanfare, like the scholarship he created at the University of Leeds, where he himself took his first degree, to sponsor students through an English literature and creative writing course.” Robinson never forget that he’d been, in his own way, lucky.

The late Toronto author’s 28th Alan Banks novel, Standing in the Shadows, is due out in the States next April. I’ll not miss picking up a copy. I own almost the entirety of his oeuvre, including two versions—one American, the other Canadian—of what is today celebrated as his “breakout book,” In a Dry Season. I don’t often ask authors to sign their works for me, but I did request that Peter Robinson ink my Canadian copy of In a Dry Season 23 years ago. His inscription reads:
To Jeff — A pleasure talking to you in Vancouver.
Cheers! Peter Robinson
In fact, the pleasure was all mine. And now, so are the memories.

READ MORE:In Memoriam—Peter Robinson,” by Ayo Onatade (Shotsmag Confidential); “Peter Robinson, R.I.P.,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?); “Peter Robinson Obituary,” by Peter Guttridge (The Guardian).


Matthew McGuire said...

I was saddened to see this news. I first discovered him when I found In a Dry Season on the new mystery shelf at the library in Northborough, Massachusetts. I thought it was one of the best mysteries I had ever read and I was so excited to find out that there were so many books in the series. In a Dry Season also led me to a new genre of mysteries, British and Scottish police procedurals, that I had never read which is now my favorite type of mystery to read.

Bill Selnes said...

Thank you for a thoughtful tribute that is also a fine personal memory of a good man.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think I have read almost all of his DCI Banks series and several standalones and never been disappointed. He was a consistently good, clever, and humanistic writer. I will miss his work.