Be advised that there are minor spoilers to follow.
I had been eagerly looking forward to Peter Robinson’s latest Alan Banks novel, Watching the Dark, for some time. Robinson took a year off from the Banks saga, and I think it was time well-spent away from the character. There have been a number of ongoing and unresolved plotlines in this series for the last few books that I’ve sensed the author wasn’t ready or willing to deal with yet. I’m not sure he’s made up his mind in terms of those issues (the biggest being Alan’s relationship with and to DI Annie Cabot), but Banks himself seems recharged after his enforced literary vacation.
I’ve been reading this series forever, although it’s one of those that I started in the middle—someone years ago said they thought I’d like In a Dry Season, and they were right (I still consider that particular book to be the best mystery I’ve read in the last 20 years). So I went back and started at the beginning. Banks starts out as a fairly run-of-the-mill character, but Robinson has given him plenty of personal challenges over the years as a means to develop him into a complex and complicated human being. At this point, 20 books into the series, even Alan realizes he needs to shake things up, get out more, stop living on Indian takeaways and spending every night with a glass of wine and a CD in the stereo. It’s really rare, I think, to get a character to this point on the self-awareness scale, and it’s refreshing.
The Alan Banks series are, of course, police procedurals, but they’re not the tedious sort. Banks is considered a bit of a maverick—he doesn’t always operate strictly by the book, and his methods are considered a little quirky by his superiors. But he gets results, and his team is completely loyal to him. Robinson wisely skips extensive descriptions of the forensic stuff here, which can be tiresome, and gets right into the meat of the investigation, leaving the SOCOs to work quietly in the background.
The case is an interesting one: DI Bill Quinn is shot with a cross bow on the grounds of a charity-run rehab center for police, so right away I thought “hmm, takes some nerve to shoot a cop on the grounds of a building that is theoretically crawling with them.” The center itself plays no other role in things, as Banks, while searching Quinn’s room there, discovers compromising photos of the victim tucked in a book and realizes Quinn had problems elsewhere. This seems to be confirmed when Banks’ boss foists Joanna Passero onto him (and onto the reader–Joanna is a bit much, honestly). Joanna is with Professional Standards, the branch responsible for ferreting out “bent” cops or those who cut corners and don’t follow correct procedure. It seems there have been rumors for some time of a cop on the take in Yorkshire, and Joanna thinks Quinn might be her suspect.
Banks and Joanna don’t hit it off, and things are complicated by the return to duty of Annie Cabot, Banks’ former lover and current partner on the force. Annie has been rehabbing after being shot on a prior case, and the team seems to think that Joanna is also there to see if she’s really fit to return to duty. No one’s very nice to Joanna as a result, and Banks resents her getting in his way while he goes about trying to figure out who wanted to kill Bill Quinn, and he suspects she can’t help but assess his every move–understandable, given her job.
The personnel issues here are an interesting way to ratchet up the tension, and Robinson throws another twist into things when it appears an old case Quinn was unable to resolve may be at the root of his death. The investigation eventually leads to a second body, that of an Estonian journalist working undercover on a story involving human trafficking, and eventually Banks and Joanna leave Annie behind to work some angles in Yorkshire while they head to Tallinn, Estonia in search of answers to who might have had Bill Quinn in their pocket and why.
As mysteries go, Watching the Dark is top drawer, if a bit slowly paced. Robinson is always great with the plot twists, and if things slow down a bit once Banks gets to Estonia, he makes up for it in the details of a place most of us are unlikely to go anytime soon. The solution is satisfying as well, although the resolution of the tensions between Banks and Joanna seems a bit vague. She finds her answers about Quinn, but her sudden desire to get out of Professional Standards and into Homicide, while understandable, seems a bit easy.
And suspicious. Robinson has avoided resolving the relationship between Banks and Annie for a number of books now, and he really needs to do something about it. It’s hard to not wonder if Joanna will appear again soon in the series, her wonky marriage over, to cry on Banks’ shoulder and allow the author to continue to avoid dealing with the Annie-Banks problem.
That’s really my only complaint, though. Robinson is otherwise as reliable as always in terms of plotting and scene descriptions (he has this knack of detailing a scene through a character’s eyes without listing a bunch of details—you get a clear picture of how things are without even being aware of it), and Banks continues to grow as a character—no mean feat 20 books into a series. The secondary characters are well-drawn, right down to the most insignificant of them. And I liked that Robinson got Banks out of Yorkshire for a while, too. A fresh environment always helps to air out a long-running series.