The Hanging Valley gives a taste of both new and old.
The fourth of Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks books is the first to include a section set in Canada where the writer now lives.
While Robinson takes his protagonist into new geographical territory, away from his Yorkshire home territory, he also, at one point, slips into an old descriptive cliché, defining a woman’s appearance by reference to her “ample breasts”, an example of the unimaginative descriptions of female characters used too commonly by male writers.
It’s not a major issue in this book, but it’s the kind of thing that I now find grating when I read it. How often does the ampleness (or otherwise) of a woman’s breasts play an indispensable plot point in fiction compared to the frequency of references to them? The extent to which it grates is probably reflected by the amount of time I’ve spent writing about a single instance in the book.
I remind myself that I’m reading something written thirty years ago, so shouldn’t judge it too harshly for featuring writing of its time. I’ll be more concerned if his more recent books continue along the same path.
It’s not hard to acknowledge the period in which they were written. Music lover Banks listens to his favourite recordings on cassette tape, and he flies to Canada on a plane where smoking is still permitted. I quite enjoy that slightly nostalgic view into a past era.
This book starts with a murder near a quiet Yorkshire village, Swainshead, and as previously mentioned the investigation takes Alan Banks to the Canadian city of Toronto. It is clear the author is familiar with both landscapes and his descriptions of Toronto are no less vivid than those of the wild Yorkshire Dales.
“Banks gave the CN Tower a miss, but he walked around the Eaton Centre, a huge shopping mall with a glass roof and a flock of sculptured Canada geese flying in to land at one end, and he visited Yonge and Dundas after dark to watch the hookers and street kids on the neon strip. He took a ferry to Ward’s Island and admired the Toronto skyline before walking along the boardwalk on the south side. Lake Ontario glittered in the sun, as vast as an ocean.”
The book also touches upon a situation I find familiar. As a childhood migrant who left England when I was old enough to remember a lot of my life there, I can identify with the nostalgic feelings of a group of ex-pat men Banks meets in a bar. Long ago I came to the same realisation of the futility of longing for places that no longer exist, or that have only ever existed in nostalgia-tainted memories.
“The longer you’re away, the more you idealize the image of home… of course, what people don’t realize is that the country’s changed beyond all recognition… We’d be foreigners there now, but to us home is still the Queen’s Christmas message, the last night of the Proms, Derby Day, a Test match at Lords, the FA Cup Final – without bloodshed – leafy lanes, a green and pleasant land. Ordered and changeless. Bloody hell, even the dark Satanic mills have some sort of olde worlde charm for homesick expatriates”
While crime investigation is obviously central to this series of books, and I enjoy the twists and turns of the unfolding mystery, their settings in time and place are what makes them particularly interesting to me. I suppose the appeal relates at least a little to nostalgia and maybe to hints of the futile homesickness described in the quote above.
The DCI Banks Yorkshire based books are set slightly to the north of Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire, within very similar landscapes. So both Robinson’s and Booth’s series fit comfortably alongside each other. Although, when starting a new book by the other author it can take time to get used to stepping across the county border and to re-familiarise myself with the characters of that other place.