Wednesday’s Child by Peter Robinson

wednesdays childBack to back DCI Banks.

I started reading Wednesday’s Child as my immediate follow up to Past Reason Hated.

Seven year old Gemma Scupham is abducted from her home by a couple posing as social workers allegedly investigating reports that Gemma was being abused.

Alan Banks’ boss, Detective Superintendent Gristhorpe takes a personal interest in the case. Having been involved in the 1960′ s Moors murder investigations, he fears they may have the start of a similar scenario on their hands.

Then, nearby, the body of a young man is found at an abandoned mine, the victim of a very brutal murder.

While Gristhorpe leads the investigation into Gemma’s disappearance, Banks is given the murder case.

Could two dissimilar serious crimes be related?

While reading through the DCI Banks’ books, in order, from the beginning of the series, I’m interesting in seeing how Robinson’s writing develops. In previous “reviews” of his books I’ve mentioned how parts of these early books seem a little dated in the attitudes portrayed, specifically with regard to gender. I’m assuming certain things might change within the writing as I get closer to the present day.
I’ve read two other, much more recent,  Robinson books, not associated with the Banks series, and found a better quality of writing that seems to justify that assumption.

Regarding Wednesday’s Child, it may seem a little pedantic to point out a couple of examples of what I consider poor writing, considering I enjoyed the overall story. However, the following two sections jumped out, in a bad way, as I read them.

Firstly, Gemma’s stepfather, Les Poole, mentions the following about another character:

“All I know is his name is Chivers. It’s pronounced with a ‘sh’ like in shivers…”

This is dialogue where the character is speaking – surely the pronunciation of the name would have been evident. He SAID the name, and therefore would have pronounced it as ‘Shivers’. If there had been any need to point out the difference between the sound and the spelling, it would have made more sense to say something along the lines of “his name is ‘Shivers’ spelled with a ‘Ch'”.

The second example that slightly irritated me is describing a scene where one night Les has been locked out of his house. His noisy demands to be let in wakes the neighbours,  providing an audience.

His partner, Gemma’s mum, throws a suitcase containing his clothes and toiletries out of the upstairs window. For some reason she also enclosed a packet of tampons among his things. The falling suitcase burst open scattering contents around Les, who:

…put his hands up to try and stop [the case] hitting him, but all he managed to do catch was the packet of tampons. It spilled its contents on his shoes as he grasped it too tightly. One of the neighbours noticed and started laughing.

I found a clumsiness in this attempted humour, especially the unlikeliness of a neighbour being able to see the implied detail of the tampons being scattered around Les’s feet – something that would even be unlikely in daylight, and therefore more unlikely at night.

While those two incidents stood out as examples of poorly thought out logic, I’ll just mention another case of something I found irritating. This example is probably more of a personal gripe than anything else.

The police staff of Eastvale seem to spend a lot of time in the local pubs, which are often their preferred places to have lunch – usually sandwiches of some kind that are always “washed down” with a pint of their preferred beer. As I said, it is more of a personal gripe, but after a few times that term “washed down” started to aggravate me.

Despite those negative comments, I still found it had an interesting story and I continue to enjoy the ongoing contact with the characters. This book is the second appearance of DC Susan Gay who made her debut in the previous book. She has settled into her new position as a detective, however this time her role is less prominent than in Past Reason Hated where she had a stronger presence in the investigation of that book’s murder case.

It will be interesting to see how her role develops. My introduction to the DCI Banks stories was through the TV series based upon the (later) books.
In the series there was a strong female presence, with two significant women detectives being given important roles in the stories. Even though I think one of them was created for the TV version and wasn’t in the books, I’d like to see the female element increase as I progress through the rest of the Banks stories.

Again there are many musical references, including a few related to the music of Ivor Gurney, including this one “In Flanders”. While this song doesn’t have any specific relevance to the story, its subject has a poignance at this particular time, a week before the centenary of the end of the first World War.

In Flanders

I’m homesick for my hills again –
My hills again!
I see above the Severn plain,
Unscabbarded against the sky,
The blue high blade of Cotswold lie;
The giant clouds go royally
By jagged Malvern with a train
Of shadows.
Where the land is low
Like a huge imprisoning O
I hear a heart that’s sound and high,
I hear the heart within me cry:
“I’m homesick for my hills again –
My hills again!
Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain!
My hills again!”

Music: Ivor Gurney
Text: Frank W. Harvey

Advertisements

Past Reason Hated by Peter Robinson

past reason hated

When Caroline Hartley is discovered savagely murdered in her living room, an LP record of Vivaldi’s Laudate pueri sung by Magda Kalmar is playing, set on repeat. The victim had never liked classical music and her partner claims she had never seen the record before.

Where did the record come from? Why was it playing? Did it have any significance to the murder?

Banks walked back to the window and lit a cigarette. What the hell was it about the music that bothered him? Why did it have to mean something? He would find out as much as he could about Vivaldi’s Laudate pueri

It’s been a while since I read one of Robinson’s DCI Banks books, and this one has been a welcome change from the “True Crime” I’ve been reading recently. It was good to get back to a story with an element of the unknown, a “page-turner” that I could read without knowing the outcome before I started, and also have the “comfort” of knowing that it wasn’t portraying the crimes and resulting suffering of real people.

This is the fifth of the DCI Banks books and its not a coincidence that the majority of crime books I’ve been reading are parts of various series. Most of them have been more than merely crime mysteries and their resolution. In the best of them the returning characters grow and develop through their experiences.

While Past Reason Hated was a “good read”, it wasn’t free of problems.

The book was first published in 1991, and I think like some of the previous Banks books, the writing shows its age.
For example, I’m not sure that a description of

“groups of female office workers [laughing] about the way the mailroom boys hands had roamed during the office party”

stands up very well almost 30 years later.

Also, the book’s opening scenes, at wedding reception, include excerpts  of  what used to be known as “rugby songs” – crude, often misoginistic ditties associated with men’s sporting teams. Again this tended to add an out-dated feel to the book.

And annoyingly, Robinson also revisits an earlier facination with breasts – this time when Banks visits a Soho night club with topless barmaids.
In more recent books (not part of this series) those “dated” elements aren’t there – or are not as noticeable

As a contrast, the book also visits territory that would have had a different political charge to it  almost 30 years ago, before LGBTIQA+ became a fashionable, ever expanding acronym.
Two of the major characters , including the murder victim were lesbians, and other characters express an assortment of attitudes towards them, some of which wouldn’t be acceptable in current western secular societies, but  the narrative itself leans more towards a live and let live attitude.

One thing made clear in all of Robinson’s work is his deep and eclectic love of music. Alan Banks shares that love and throughout the books references are made to various pieces of music, of many genres, that he plays while driving or walking.  Part of the pleasure beyond the books is tracking down examples of the tracks Banks plays.

 

The video above is one part of the recording playing at the murder scene.
It is based upon Psalm 112.

Psalm 112
Praise the LORD.
Blessed are those who fear the LORD,
who find great delight in his commands.
Their children will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
they will be remembered forever.
They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD.
Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear;
in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor,
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn will be lifted high in honor.
The wicked will see and be vexed,
they will gnash their teeth and waste away;
the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.

2 + 2 = Variety

Two books plus two films, a diversity of genres and forms, with little in common: all in a weekend’s “work”.

caedmonOn Saturday I finished the last 30 or 40 pages of Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song.
Kirsten is making her way home after celebrating the completion of her studies at a northern university. She wakes in hospital after suffering a horrific attack.
As the months pass, during her slow recovery, several young students are murdered, presumably by the same attacker.
There is pressure to break through the suppression of her memories of her own attack, in the hope of identifying the man and bring his killing to an end.

Alongside Kirsten’s story the book also follows Martha Browne, visiting the northern coastal town of Whitby, claiming to be researching a book, but keen to keep to herself as she plans for some kind of mission aided by her “spirit guides”.

Robinson said that the book was partly inspired by the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, and the question of how a surviving victim of a serial killer might respond to their survival and recovery.

lady Later on Saturday I started reading Lady in Waiting another book that alternates between two stories. In the present day Jane Lindsay is struggling with the seeming breakdown of her marriage, when her husband takes a job in a another city.
In the past there is the story of Lucy Day, a young seamstress working for Lady Jane Grey.

The two stories are brought together by the discovery of a ring hidden in the spine of a centuries old prayer book bought as stock for Jane’s antique shop.
The title “Lady in Waiting”, could be applied to Jane Lindsay, waiting for her husband’s return to the marriage; to Lucy Day, waiting on her Lady Jane; or to Lady Jane herself, waiting to find out the future planned for her by her family.

I’ve had a five decade interest in Lady Jane Grey since I read or heard about her as a pre-teen in the late 1960s. She is the forgotten first Queen of England, whose reign lasted just over a week.
She was the chosen successor of the Protestant Edward VI who wanted to deny his Roman Catholic sister Mary from taking the throne after his death. Jane, Edward’s cousin, was an educated and devout Christian in regular correspondence with leading protestant theologians in Europe.

Mary’s military support made Jane’s position untenable and Jane was executed on Mary’s orders early the following year, at the age of 16.

Swallows_and_Amazons_(2016_film)Swallows and Amazons is a classic children’s book that I’ve never had the opportunity to read.
A year or two ago I started to watch an old film version of the story, but lost interest only half an hour in.

On Saturday Gloria bought this new version on DVD, A wonderful film in which the Walker children face dangers, imagined and real, during a holiday in the Lake District of northern England.
They sail their boat “Swallow” to a an island to camp out for the night, but find the island has already been claimed by the “Amazons”, a group of locals.

As the rivalry between the Swallows and the Amazons intensifies, they find themselves being drawn to work together to face a more serious, common enemy.

Set in the 1930s, it s story that wouldn’t translate to a present day setting, where children would be discouraged from pursuing risky outdoor adventure, even if they could be torn away from the digital adventures pursued in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

 

downsizingDownsizing is another film Gloria found on Saturday morning.
I wasn’t really interested in seeing it, and almost halfway into the film I was wondering why I’d bothered.

As the human population increases the harm it does to the planet, scientists discover a way to “downsize” people and animals – basically shrink them to a fraction of their natural size.
This is seen as a potential life-saver for the planet. Reduce the population in size and reduce the consumption of resources as well as reduce the resulting waste footprint.

The major enticement to encourage potential recruits for the project is the promise of more affluent lives in custom made small communities. Current basic finances convert to the equivalent of millions of dollars in a community where a few metres of land are the equivalent of several acres when the scale difference is taken into account and the “downsized” people can live in mansions that would previously been the size of a doll house.

The first part of the film concentrates on the wonders associated with the downsizing opportunities, using some interesting special effects to show the interaction between people of vastly different scales. Downsizing is presented as a favourable option with no down-side; apart from one or two hints that its outcome may not fully be what it is presented to be.

There are occasional hints of political unrest – with questions being raised about the legal rights of downsized people. They consume so little, and therefore contribute so much less to a consumer driven society, so should they have equal voting rights?
And it becomes clear that downsizing can be misused and abused by Governments as well as by less than honourable corporate groups.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, who, along with his wife, choose to downsize. Safranek soon finds that he may have made a mistake in making that irreversible choice.

As I said, after half of the film I was wondering about the point of it all, but then the film took a significant turn. That change came about with the introduction of a Vietnamese character, Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chau.
She gives the film a spark it was lacking and brings it to life, a Jesus worshipping woman devoted to serving the less fortunate.
Through her Safranek starts to see another side to the downsizing programme. Alongside the advertised affluence, there is a hidden world of poverty, making their new world no different to the one they’d chosen to leave behind, where affluence is enjoyed at the expense of many who are usually unnoticed.

It is a clear film of two halves. The second part turned it from something self-indulgently forgettable into something thought provokingly memorable. It’s something that has stayed with me since I saw it on Saturday evening.

Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson

poison.jpgThis is the first non-DCI Banks book by Peter Robinson that I’ve read.

After decades of living and working in America, Chris Lowndes returns to Britain after the death of his wife. He buys a large isolated property in Yorkshire and finds it was the site of a murder almost sixty years earlier. Previous resident, Grace Fox was hanged for poisoning her husband.

Lowndes becomes increasingly interested in the story as he finds connections between himself and the accused murderer and starts to investigate her story.

At first I found it hard going. The story is told in the first person by a character I initially found difficult to care about. I think I was annoyed about his life of privilege: able to move across the world to a large house with an interesting history, and able to indulge in various passions with no immediate need to earn a living. However I accepted that he needed that kind of background to give him the time and money to carry out his research into the life and death of Grace Fox.

Peter Robinson’s love of music is made clear in his DCI Banks books. Music pervades the stories, and many of his book titles are borrowed from songs. In Before the Poison Robinson goes to town with music references from a variety of genres, with his protagonist being a composer of film soundtracks whose life is accompanied by his wide ranging music collection. His profession also allows for many film references, especially the classic cinema of Britain as well as more well-known Hollywood films.

The music and film references evoke more than a hint of nostalgia and the inevitable loss that the passing of time produces.

All through my adolescence in Leeds, I had watched my favourite cinemas turned into bingo halls, carpet warehouses, Sikh temples or mosques – the Lyric, Lyceum, Clifton, Clock, Western, Crown and Palace, all gone. It seemed hardly a week went by without one of them disappearing for good.

But Lowndes’ investigations into the story of Grace Fox shows that the past can also be preserved, and what seemed lost can be rediscovered, whether through historical records, personal journals, or surviving friends and family members.
Utilising all of these he builds a picture of the unfolding tragic events that led to her death.

 

 

 

 

The Hanging Valley, Peter Robinson

hanging valleyThe 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.

Old Habits

This month I’ve returned to a practice I’d recently abandoned; that is reading more than one book at a time.

For several months now I’ve stuck to reading a single book from beginning to end before starting another, but maybe two weeks ago I picked up a second, and then a third book, slowing down my progress while I try to juggle between the three.

The first was a book of short stories upon which the TV series Grantchester is based. I heard an interview with the author, James Runcie, and was drawn to the stories of a C of E priest who finds himself drawn into murder solving.

I’ve seen the drama series advertised on TV but didn’t like the look of it, but after hearing the author speak of the differences between book and TV versions, I thought I could give the books a chance. One of those differences seems to be the extent that the lead character pursues “romantic” relationships. The impression I got from the author, and also from the brief advertising clips of the show, the TV version leans more to sexual relationship than “romantic”.

I recall the author saying something along the lines that in reality the minister would have been driven out of his position in the church if his actions had been discovered.

So far I’ve finished the first of the stories in the first Grantchester book, originally titled Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. The story introduces Sidney Chambers, the Anglican priest, and how he was introduced to the world of detection. The mistress of suicide victim asks for his help, being convinced he hadn’t taken his own life. Chambers reluctantly makes some discreet enquiries and becomes convinced that she’s right. But how does he take that conviction to his police detective friend?

The story itself is reasonably simple. It’s length doesn’t allow for too much complexity, so the murder is solved with relative ease. While enjoyable as a short read, it didn’t draw me in and keep me hooked in the way that my previous crime reading has done. I also see it being in the Miss Marple and Jessica fletcher (Murder She Wrote) line of murder mysteries, that to me stretch credulity too far. How many murders does the average person come across? And is it credible that they could actually solve the countless murders that they somehow attract into the sphere of their daily lives?

My crime fiction preference therefore leans to police centred murder enquiries where the protagonists are more likely to come across crimes of this nature.

I’ve now put that book of short stories aside while I tackle the two other books currently on my reading list.

I’ve written a little about the second book in a previous post, View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley. It’s not an easy book to get through. It is episodic, with Crowley taking the reader on a journey through various aspects of his time served in the Vietnam War. He addresses his reader as a companion being shown around his various haunts and activities. While the surface has a veneer of humour, there is also a clear undercurrent of the horrors and degradation to which he and his fellow soldiers were subjected. It is clear that he recognised (or has come to recognise) the war’s futility and contradictions.

I repeat an excerpt that I used in my earlier post:

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

It’s not a “pretty” book. It’s no literary gem. It’s very uncomfortable reading due to its style and the bluntness of its very coarse language, but it comes across as a disturbingly honest account. At times Crowley appears to relish in sharing some R-rated [extreme coarse language], boys own adventures, but he also paints a disturbingly vivid backdrop that brings those “adventures” into the context of a bloody and unnecessary war.

 

And on to the third…

The Hanging Valley is another in Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks series.
A body is discovered in a remote valley near the village of Swainshead. What seems to be the murder of an unknown tourist develops into a story of a village where everyone has something they want to hide; but to what extent will covering up their personal secrets hinder Banks’s investigation?

I started this as an escape from the slow progress I was making through the Vietnam memoir. I was eager to get back to a good page turning read, and I haven’t been disappointed yet by anything in this series.

The only problem with this approach is that I can’t read both at the same time, and I have to decide which one to pick up and therefore, by default, which one gets neglected.

While I enjoy the entertainment value of an excellent crime mystery thriller, especially one where character development is given equal weight, I’m a person who likes to learn – so, while they may not have the same page turning nature, I’m also eager to dive into books that potentially aid my understanding of topics of personal interest (currently the Vietnam war)

If only, after that initial dive, the actual reading was easier than swimming through rough waters against the current.

 

A Necessary End, Peter Robinson

AneccessaryendPatience and persistence paid off.

The problems I mentioned regarding the previous two DCI Banks’ books aren’t an issue with this one.

A Necessary End is the third in the series – and it’s a compelling, page turner involving politics and questionable policing practices, brought to a head with the murder of a policeman during a “peaceful” political protest in Banks’ home town of Eastvale.

The potentially guilty parties are narrowed down to a small group who organised the protest: political activists, students, and the alternative lifestyle pursuing residents of Maggie’s Farm (named after a Bob Dylan song*).

A police superintendent from outside of the area is brought in to lead the investigation, and his questionable methods cause a degree of friction and hostility. His goal of getting a result at any cost is at odds with DCI Banks’ need to find the truth.

Was the murder a spontaneous unplanned stabbing, an opportunistic act of terror or a targeted vengeful killing ?

Written in the late 80s when IRA terrorism, Thatcherism,  police-busting of a national miner’s strike and ongoing nuclear protests at Greenham Common were fresh in the memory, A Necessary End draws on those political tensions and the suspicions they created.

 

 

* U2’s version of the Bob Dylan song, performed only a couple of years before the book was written.