Wednesday, April 12, 2023

One Last Case for Alan Banks

Shortly after British-born Canadian crime fictionist Peter Robinson passed away last October at age 72, his UK editor informed the press that the author, being the professional he was, hadn’t gone to his grave before first delivering his 28th Detective Superintendent Alan Banks novel—which she said was “perhaps his finest work yet.”

That mystery, titled Standing in the Shadows, is finally being released this week in the States by publisher William Morrow (and is set to reach bookshops in Great Britain on June 8). While I would dispute the appraisal of it being superior to such previous Banks outings as In a Dry Season (1999), Strange Affair (2005), Piece of My Heart (2006), or Children of the Revolution (2013), the new novel—adroitly paced and woven with pop-cultural references and late-20th-century British history—certainly deserves top marks for a full-hearted exploration of its principal players, Banks included.

Robinson gives us two parallel story lines here, set in different time frames. The first begins with the strangulation death, in November 1980, of Alice Poole, a young, slender, and blonde student of social sciences and politics at what is presumably the University of Leeds, the author’s old alma mater in West Yorkshire (though I don’t recall him actually naming the institution in his text). She’d gone missing one evening after striding determinedly from her student bedsit, “carrying a small rucksack” and off to meet her older boyfriend, Mark Woodcroft. From there they were supposed to attend a weekend political demonstration in London. However, Alice’s body was soon after found in a nearby park. And Woodcroft was never heard from again.

Left behind to sort out these mysteries is one Nicholas Hartley, an English literature student from Portsmouth, who lived downstairs from Alice. He also happens to be her ex-boyfriend, and was none too keen on Woodcroft taking up with her. But Alice had evidently been disappointed in Hartley’s bloodless commitment to activist causes, be they opposition to war, sexual violence, or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative, anti-union policies, and she’d sought a more like-minded lover. Woodcroft better fit that bill, though Hartley distrusted him and thought him “a bit off.”

Local police detectives are quick to question Hartley, and they obviously regard him as a potential suspect in Alice’s slaying. They postulate, as well, that her death may be linked to a headline-grabbing recent series of attacks on young women—many of them around Leeds—that are blamed on an as-yet-unidentified killer: the Yorkshire Ripper. Did Hartley off pretty Alice, and could he be the Ripper? The latter seems unlikely, since Hartley was too young at the time of the Ripper’s first documented assault, in 1969, and the circumstances of Alice’s demise are at odds with that nebulous murderer’s modus operandi. Nonetheless, Hartley pursues information about Alice’s last days, hoping to clear his own name in this affair.

The second Standing in the Shadows time frame pushes us forward to November 2019 and a chilly archaeological dig at the edge of an old farm, located on the eastern outskirts of Eastvale, the fictional Yorkshire Dales market town (modeled on Richmond) where Robinson set his Banks tales. A new shopping center is planned for that property, but first a team of specialists has been sent to excavate the ground in quest of Roman artifacts. Instead of preserved pottery, bracelets, discarded spurs, and building foundations, though, they discover the skeleton of a man tucked into a shallow grave.

Called promptly to investigate are Superintendent Banks and his colleagues, notably Detective Constable Gerry Masterson and Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman. Together with assorted forensics techs and the archaeologist who stumbled across those bones, Grace Hutchinson, they commence what appears to be the futile task of identifying the victim, a well-dressed male who may have lain underground for up to a decade. This leads them to septuagenarian Harold Gillespie, who’d owned the farm at the time of the burial, but claims no knowledge of any corpse. Besides, he argues (not unreasonably), if he had murdered the man, why would he have been daft enough to secrete him on his own land?

(Left) The late Peter Robinson.

In his fiction, Robinson often explores the present-day ramifications of historical events. Here he does so in more dramatic detail than usual, toggling back and forth between Hartley’s decades-long campaign to learn of Alice Poole’s final activities and her killer’s identify (an effort that eventually leads him to become an investigative journalist), and Banks’ struggle to discern what provoked the fatal blow that ended his anonymous victim’s life. Along the way, we hear that Alice had been having some ill-defined “boyfriend problems,” and that the cops initially assigned to probe her murder had been taken off the case within a week’s time; learn that Gillespie is concealing elements of his résumé that might influence the direction of Banks’ inquiry; and are reminded of a scandal centered on the Metropolitan Police Service’s Special Demonstration Squad, a top-secret unit of undercover officers who infiltrated “radical left” groups, beginning in 1968, and struck up sexual relationships with women in order to enhance the credibility of their aliases.

Robinson was a deft plotter and a polished stylist, with an eye for the emotional resonance inherent in challenging turns of events. His portrayals of people could be subtle, occasionally frustratingly so, but they were always believable. Those strengths he brings to this latest novel. Plus, through Hartley, he playfully exhibits his bona fides as a littérateur, name-checking authors both eminent and obscure.

Although the bulk of character development in these pages focuses on Nicholas Hartley, who can never leave behind his feelings for poor, lost Alice, Robinson also builds satisfyingly on Banks’ back story. That subplot about the Special Demonstration Squad causes the superintendent to think back (remorsefully) on his own undercover undertakings in the mid-1970s, when he penetrated a drug operation in London’s Notting Hill district and failed to prevent the tragic overdose of a “timid but intelligent young woman” caught up peripherally in the operation. In addition, Banks must deal with an esoteric record collection left to him by his artist friend, Raymond Cabbot, who perished in the harrowing 27th Banks novel, Not Dark Yet. Ray was, of course, the father of Banks’ associate (and onetime inamorata), Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, who is sadly absent from most of this tale. I can’t help wondering whether Robinson would have sidelined her, had he known when he started writing Standing in the Shadows that he wouldn’t have time to complete another book.

Inevitably, this yarn’s twin time frames intersect, and the pivotal puzzle of who killed Alice Poole is resolved. I just wish it hadn’t been—not completely, anyway. There’s plenty of intriguing clue dissection and crafty misdirection leading up to the last chapter, but the conclusion falls rather flat. I would’ve preferred that Robinson leave the solution a bit ambiguous. We didn’t need to know for sure whodunit; enough had already been revealed. Yes, such vagueness might have upset readers determined to see justice done by the close of every crime novel, but it would’ve been an unexpected and memorable capper to this consistently creative series.

And—a fortuitous result of his premature passing—Peter Robinson would now be quite safely immune from any criticism.

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My slight fault-finding aside, Standing in the Shadows is a work every Alan Banks fan will wish to own. Here’s how to get yours.

Robinson’s American publisher, William Morrow, has generously agreed to send copies of Standing in the Shadows to three lucky Rap Sheet readers. All you need do to enter this drawing is e-mail your name, postal address, and the titles of your favorite Banks books to Oh, and be sure to type “Peter Robinson Contest” in the subject line.

Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Wednesday, April 19. The three winners will be chosen at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.

Sorry, but this contest is open only to U.S. residents.

What the heck are you waiting for? Send your entry in today!

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