Peter Robinson has been incrementally building a fan base in the
United States for a while now, and though it is a dedicated one, it
is at this point numerically somewhat less than what he deserves.
His novels detailing the exploits of the quietly eccentric Police
Inspector Alan Banks and D.I. Annie Cabbot are better known in his
native Britain; this may change with the United States publication
of PLAYING WITH FIRE.
The book finds Banks and Cabbot still working through the
dissolution of their romantic entanglement while trying to keep
their professional relationship viable and functioning. Both have
found other interests that they are trying to maintain within the
demands of their job when they are summoned to a Yorkshire canal to
investigate a fire that has engulfed two barges and resulted in the
death of two individuals. It is quickly determined that the fires
were deliberately set. Within a short time, a second fire consumes
a trailer in the remote English countryside and another life is
lost. While the fires appear to be related, the connections among
the victims --- a young heroin addict, a supposedly starving artist
and a failed businessman --- remain unknown.
Robinson is in no hurry here, as he sends Banks and Cabbot along
their respective ways while they attempt to unravel the backgrounds
of the victims and seek to uncover the linkage that may determine
the motive and, ultimately, the perpetrator. A dead end, a clue, a
red herring ... all are part of the investigative process, and
while things move slowly, Robinson's pacing is exquisite,
maintaining a nice balance between describing the investigation and
further developing the personae and relationships of the
principals. Banks, especially, is an absolute delight. His life is
basically his work and he has an eclectic taste in music, which
ranges from the classical to Van Morrison to what is on the radio
Robinson additionally relies more on quiet drama than explosions
and karate battles to move things along. Most of the violent acts
take place off the page, yet PLAYING WITH FIRE is not a "cozy" by
any means. His description of the aftermath of a fire will almost
certainly cure the reader of any longing for "char-broiled" fare.
Robinson also takes a very subtle look into the world of artists
and collectors. I have to confess that I learned more about
painting after reading a few pages of this book than I did during
an eight-week course on the subject.
PLAYING WITH FIRE also introduces one of the most cunning and
calculating villains I've encountered recently; the black heart's
identity is concealed for almost the entire book, though fans of
the genre will spot him fairly early on. I have a feeling he'll be
back; he's too good to be confined to a single book.
Robinson meets and exceeds the expectations created by such
previous Banks novels as IN A DRY SEASON and CLOSE TO HOME. The
conclusion of PLAYING WITH FIRE, while satisfying, leaves the
reader yearning for more, and for the next installment of the Banks
series. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011