Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson

This is -- if I'm counting correctly -- the fourth novel in the "Alan Banks" series, which I started reading about three novels later in the mid-90s.

I came to Robinson from John Harvey's somewhat similar police procedurals (both are set in minor UK cities), and at first wasn't as impressed by Robinson as by Harvey. This is natural, since Harvey is a poet, and has a poet's sense for the perfect word; his books are just amazing on every level, from sentences up to plot. Robinson isn't as flashy a writer, but he has the essential virtues of a great mystery writer: he knows people, in all their variety; he knows how to write about those people in specific places and situations; he has the stamina to keep with a series, deepening his world as he goes; and he knows how to balance the mystery's conflicting impulses of showing the evils that men do and of proving that justice can be done. Robinson has been writing this series for two decades now, and it's quietly become one of the major achievements of the modern mystery genre.

In The Hanging Valley, Robinson's viewpoint character, Detective Inspector Alan Banks, is still new in the small (fictional) Yorkshire city of Eastvale, and is still married. This book takes place in the late '80s; nearly twenty years ago, but there are only a few moments when that's obvious -- mostly a case of wondering why these people aren't using their mobile phones. But murder is eternal, and this book opens with a hiker in a remote valley discovering a dead body. It's soon clear that this new murder has some connection to a murder and a missing persons case from five years before...and even with Canada. (Perhaps this novel has an early, mild case of Ross Macdonald Disease?)

Banks and his men -- at this point, it is only men, two younger policemen who work for him -- come to the small village where the dead man stayed the night before his death, and start asking the questions that will dig into the locals' inevitable secrets. It's a plot set-up that has been used a thousand times before in mystery novels, but Robinson doesn't rely on cliches here. He's interested in the relations between people -- men and women, rich and poor, locals and outsider -- and tells his story both by having Banks dig into the village's secrets and by showing us the locals directly. (Robinson wasn't particularly old-fashioned even this far back; he's the kind of mystery writer who doesn't limit himself to just the detective's viewpoint. Bouncing from the investigation to the investigatees can destroy tension or create reader frustration, but Robinson does it well. And he doesn't seem to be trying to go "beyond the mystery," to be writing "the novel" -- he's telling his mystery story, about these people, in a direct and immediate way.)

So -- even this far back in the series, Robinson was doing really good stuff, thought Banks was still a bit colorless at this point. If you like mystery novels, you need to try something by Robinson -- In a Dry Season, his 1999 novel, is where the series got really good, in my opinion -- because he's not just a writer to watch, he's a writer who's already one of the best in the world at what he does.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a big Robinson fan, although just as his early work isn't quite as good, his last couple haven't stuck with me as much. Maybe he needs to start a new franchise.


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