I would have been in love with Peter Robinson's STRANGE AFFAIR by
virtue of the title alone. Anyone who names a novel after a Richard
Thompson song is deserving of accolades. But it becomes quickly
evident that Robinson is not showing off, in some
hipper-than-you'll-ever-be sense, by name-dropping a somewhat
obscure song by an artist who, in his own words, has a small enough
following that he doesn't have to worry about catching a helicopter
to his next gig. No. Listen to the song on the First Light CD, by
Richard and Linda Thompson, as you begin reading this novel, and
you'll find that the music and book fit perfectly together from
first note and page to last.
Indeed, STRANGE AFFAIR, after a brief vignette, begins with British
police inspector Alan Banks hearing the song by happenstance in a
pub, an incident that remarkably enough has ties to his past. Banks
also has no way of knowing that within a few minutes he will
receive a telephone message that will irrevocably change his life.
Robinson, if I may take a moment to say so, is absolutely
brilliant. STRANGE AFFAIR is his fifteenth Banks novel. Though the
books in the series are connected sequentially, they also are
written so that one can jump into the series at any point and be
brought up to speed fairly quickly and painlessly. This is a
difficult task for a writer, particularly with a character such as
Banks, who has, to put it delicately, a history. So it is that, if
you are reading Robinson for the first time here, you will learn
that Banks is still in a bit of shock after having his home burnt
down by Detective Annie Cabbot, Banks's professional partner and
former lover. The fiend is still on the loose (and no, they don't
catch her in this installment).
Banks is trying to cope with his myriad losses and is going through
the motions of life when he receives a cryptic call for assistance
from Roy, his younger and wealthier brother. When Banks arrives in
London pursuant to his brother's summons, he finds Roy's
fashionable home to be deserted. While nothing immediately appears
to be amiss, Banks discovers that his brother is more, and less,
than he ever suspected.
Meanwhile, Annie Cabbot is investigating the mysterious shooting
death of a young woman on a highway. Her death is made all the more
puzzling by the fact that a clue discovered at the scene of the
crime seems to link her directly to Banks. While Banks is looking
for his brother, Cabbot is searching for Banks, and each of them is
carrying potential keys to the puzzle of a larger mystery.
Robinson's narrative pace is steady but not rushed, thus building
an internal urgency that is almost excruciating by the time Cabbot
and Banks finally do connect. As the pieces of the story slowly fit
together, the reader learns more about Banks, a bit about Cabbot,
and some more about how the world works. The climax is redemptive
of sorts but uncomfortable, and all the more real for it. It is
illustrative of Robinson's genius --- yes, genius --- that he can
introduce a character central to the impetus of STRANGE AFFAIR
within the last twenty pages and do it without a bit of strain or
feeling of overreaching, simultaneously making the character ---
who we barely get to meet --- the most memorable in the book. That,
I would submit, is superior writing.
This is a work, and an author, that simply cannot be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011