Peter Robinson is a grandmaster of mystery fiction, an author’s author. Read the first paragraph of his new novel and you will see why. He makes it look easy, taking what appears to be a fairly pedestrian and (deceptively) peaceful scene and immediately drawing you into the story.
WATCHING THE DARK had me even before the jump, offering the return of Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, who is paired with his colleague, DI Annie Cabbot. Banks is a quietly interesting character, a bit clueless in the way of romance and possessed of a truly wonderful and eclectic music collection that has been destroyed and re-acquired a time or two. The title of the book shares its name with a song by legendary British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, of whom Banks is a fan; this was a draw as well, though Banks is reason enough to stay. However, it is the story, along with Banks’s quietly dogged, even stubborn pursuit of the truth, that makes the novel such a winner.
"[I]f you are one of the unlucky ones who haven’t read an Alan Banks novel, WATCHING THE DARK would be an excellent place to begin reading away at Robinson’s considerable bibliography."
The book kicks off with the murder of a policeman. The officer --- a respected DI named Bill Quinn --- had been convalescing at a police treatment center and was found dead on the grounds, pierced through the heart with an arrow. Banks, who had a remote acquaintance with Quinn, is brought in to investigate; he almost immediately discovers some compromising photos of Quinn and a possibly underage woman. That, in turn, brings an officer from the dreaded and loathed Professional Standards into the mix. That would be the enigmatic Joanna Passero, whose presence in the investigation is anything but welcome for any number of reasons. Banks, who possesses a dry sense of humor, makes things difficult in his own way for his new colleague, sometimes hilariously so, as he attempts to uncover a motive for Quinn’s murder.
It develops that Quinn had been widowed approximately one month before his death; the presence of the incriminating photographs of Quinn and the unknown young woman would seem to indicate, at least to Banks, that the officer was being blackmailed, an impediment that the death of his wife would theoretically remove. When a second murder victim is discovered in an abandoned farmhouse, a link is established to Quinn and, more importantly, to a case involving a young local woman who disappeared during a weekend holiday in Tallinn, Estonia. Quinn had traveled there at the behest of the woman’s parents, and his inability to ultimately determine her fate had haunted him for several years.
Banks heads to Tallinn with Passero in tow, while Cabbot remains in England to pursue leads. The two colleagues work the case from opposite sides and slowly come to meet the solution in the middle. But Banks is not satisfied; haunted by the unresolved disappearance of the young woman from years before, he is determined to solve the puzzle and obtain justice, rough or otherwise. His efforts provide a satisfying end to the book, even as further complications in other areas are hinted at.
Peter Robinson is perhaps not as well known to readers as he should be, given that he is occasionally overshadowed commercially by other authors who mine the same mountain that he does. Still, there is room for recognition for all, and if you are one of the unlucky ones who haven’t read an Alan Banks novel, WATCHING THE DARK would be an excellent place to begin reading away at Robinson’s considerable bibliography.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 18, 2013