In a Dry Season
by Peter Robinson
Published by Avon/Twilight
432 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Books by Peter Robinson
(Titles in boldface type feature Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks)
It's easy to forget that Peter Robinson is a Canadian author. His tongue-rolling accent is a sure tip-off to his Yorkshire roots. Most of his dozen mystery novels so far have been set in that same predominately rural quarter of northern England, in a fictional market town called Eastvale. His work is most often spoken of and reviewed in relation to that of prominent British crime writers, such as Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin. And when his blue eyes twinkle at the very prospect of tossing back a few pints of beer over a conversation, you know -- there's no question in your mind -- that this is a man who'd fit comfortably into the ale-and-tobacco-scented pubs of Leeds or London.
"I believe it was a critic for the Globe and Mail who called me 'Canada's least-appreciated crime novelist,'" says the 49-year-old Robinson, who now makes his home in Toronto. "Least appreciated" as a Canadian, perhaps, but hardly unacclaimed as a wordsmith. Robinson's first novel, Gallows View (1987), which introduced Alan Banks, a dogged former London police detective recently transferred to Yorkshire, was short-listed for awards in both Canada and the UK. In 1992, his fifth Banks outing, Past Reason Hated, won the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. Final Account (1994) picked up an Author's Award from the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters. And Robinson's newest novel, In a Dry Season -- heavily promoted by his American publisher and widely reviewed on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border -- seems well on its way toward scoring more commendations from his literary peers.
The book, his 10th Banks police procedural, certainly deserves attention. Its story thick with faded hopes and decades-old secrets, In a Dry Season shows Robinson at his most self-assured. The drama kicks off with the discovery of a skeleton, hidden since World War II in a reservoir-flooded hamlet called Hobb's End, but recently exposed by a drought. Since the bones appear to be those of a murdered woman, the police in nearby Eastvale are alerted, and out comes Detective Chief Inspector Banks to investigate. He expects this to be a "dirty, pointless, dead-end case," and sees his assignment to it as just another means by which his vindictive boss, Chief Constable Jeremiah ("Jimmy") Riddle, can punish him for previous insubordination. However, as Banks and a local detective sergeant, Annie Cabbot, re-create the crime scene, bringing Hobb's End figuratively back to life through the memories of its ex-inhabitants, they come to realize the obvious hardships -- and hidden passions -- of wartime Yorkshire. They're also drawn by the story of their murder victim, Gloria Shackleton, a curvaceous and somewhat brazen young woman who'd ventured into the country to help with the farming, but wound up marrying a young soldier who was later reported killed in Southeast Asia.
Throughout this tale, author Robinson weaves the text of a memoir, written by septuagenarian detective novelist Vivian Elmsley, that sheds additional light on life in Hobb's End. Its mixing of viewpoints and mounting suspense make In a Dry Season a most absorbing and satisfying read.
But it is the character of Banks who turns this from a merely nimbly plotted yarn into one of real depth and human interest. On the mend after his breakup with wife Sandra, questioning his career and reconsidering his past, and at odds with a son whom he thinks intent on wasting his life, Banks has never been more complex. Or more interesting. He also seems uncharacteristically hopeful, reinvigorated both by his probing into the Hobb's End reservoir puzzle -- which reminds him why he became a cop in the first place -- and by an aborning relationship with Annie Cabbot, a uniquely free-spirited and more youthful cop, who deserves to be a regular or at least recurring figure in the Banks series.
So, where does Alan Banks go from here? During his most recent book-signing tour I had the chance to sit down with Robinson and ask him about his next novel, as well as about the source of his interest in crime fiction and the future of that unjustly overlooked subgenre, the Canadian mystery novel.
J. Kingston Pierce: You moved from your native England to Ontario, Canada, in 1974. Why?
Peter Robinson: I came initially to do a course in English and creative writing at the University of Windsor. There was an ad for the course at the University of Leeds, which I'd been attending. The course was taught by [author] Joyce Carol Oates, and the ad had a picture of an ivy-covered building in Windsor, Ontario, and it looked interesting. I wanted to travel, to see North America, and I thought this would be a great way to do it. So I applied, was accepted at the university, and then came over for a year.
After that, I went back to England, but I couldn't get a job teaching. [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher had got into office, and all of the jobs had disappeared over there. So, instead, I went into a Ph.D. program in Toronto -- at York University -- and spent the next few years basically shuttling back and forth, spending most of the summers over in Britain and most of the school term time in Toronto. By then, I felt that I had put down some roots in Toronto, and I liked it there and could get teaching jobs there. So I ended up staying.
Did you enjoy studying under Joyce Carol Oates?
We got along very well. But it's a funny story, how we got together. Because originally I sent some short-story samples and some poems -- which I was writing more of at that time -- and she didn't accept me into her creative writing program. However, I was taken into the regular English program. So I went to Ontario, and I'd been there about a month, when I did a poetry reading that Joyce attended. And after the reading, she came up to me and asked, "Why aren't you in the creative writing course?" I said, "Well, I applied for it, but you turned me down." She said, "Yeah, but you didn't send those things, did you?" I said, "Well, no, because I've just written them since I've been here." At which point, she said, "Well, we can switch you -- come on." And she sort of dragged me into the creative-writing program, and was very, very supportive.
She directed your development as a writer?
Not so much "directed" as "encouraged." If something wasn't working -- a line or an image -- she'd point it out, but she'd still leave it up to you to fix. And most of the burden for finding your voice was left to you, which is probably the best way to do it. You can't really teach anyone to write -- you can only give them a few nuts and bolts, and beyond that, they have to grub their own way along.
Writers must have something in them that forces them to write and compels them to stay with it.
Exactly. That's why most of my writing students over the years [at a variety of Toronto colleges] have failed to develop in any way. It's not that they lack talent -- quite a lot of them have good enough talent, which they could develop. But they don't see that writing is something you've got to be passionate about, something that you have to live. So many of them are more in love with the idea of being a writer than in actually writing. They think it's glamorous.
So, at what point did you decide that you wanted to write crime fiction?
That came later. I had been writing poetry, and publishing some of my work. I was moving toward narrative poetry, already telling stories in verse, and it wasn't so difficult to move from that to prose fiction. But I had mostly been reading English literature, and had shied away from crime fiction. I hadn't really read any of it, except for Sherlock Holmes and the Saint when I was younger.
But then I went home to Yorkshire one rainy summer, and my dad, who was a great reader, had this Raymond Chandler omnibus, which I picked up. The first story I read was The Little Sister, and I remember thinking, right from the first page, Oh, I've been missing something. So I went from there straight through Chandler. And then my dad was also a great Georges Simenon fan, so I read some of the Maigret stories, and thought, Wow, here's atmosphere for you, this guy can really write. After that, I read lots and lots of other authors, including [Agatha] Christie and some of the Golden-Agers, as well as [Ross] Macdonald and [Dashiell] Hammett and [Ed] McBain. I thought, in the end, I could probably do as well as some writers and better than others, and I just had to try it.
And the rest is history?
Well, not quite. I wrote three novels that should probably be burned, about an eternal student/private eye -- they were terrible. But then I hit on Banks. I wrote A Dedicated Man first, although it was eventually published second in the series. I was very fortunate with that novel. I got it to an editor at Penguin Books in Toronto who was looking for crime writers at the time, and she liked it enough that she gave me a contract for both that and Gallows View, which I had also written by that time.
What was your inspiration for the character of Alan Banks?
I'd gotten interested in [Ruth] Rendell and those kind of writers, who were able to take a part of England and create a detective through whose eyes they could examine the area as much as investigate crimes. I think it may have been that I'd not been in Canada very long then, so I was a bit nostalgic -- I wanted to re-create England in my writing. So I invented a large market town in Yorkshire -- a town rather like [Yorkshire's] Richmond. And then came Banks. I wanted a protagonist who was trying to escape the big city, who'd seen it all and was close to burnout, and who thought that maybe a transfer would help him.
Do you think that it has helped? How do you see Banks' evolution over the course of 10 novels?
My books are set not much more than a year apart, and there's maybe a murder or two in each book -- that's not unreasonable; I haven't murdered the entire population of Yorkshire twice over. And as the series has gone on, the cases have become more personal for Banks, each one taking more of a toll on him.
The result is that he has developed a darker sort of world view. He's certainly become more introspective. I think that's partly also because of what happened in Blood at the Root, with his marriage breaking up -- a marriage he had always taken for granted, thought was perfectly fine. He's now watching his life more closely. He's examining himself, questioning where he's coming from and why he is who he is, what his values are. He's thinking more about his youth and his childhood. I think it's opened him up an awful lot to the readers. And that process continues in the next book, too.
Personal change is characteristic of modern detectives, isn't it? Much more so than it was for the classic sleuths.
Absolutely. The "greats," like Sherlock Holmes and [Hercule] Poirot -- they never really changed what they did, who they were. They existed only in order to solve puzzles. Yet the modern detective develops very much as an ordinary man does. It's the Everyman aspect -- you have to put up with the rotten boss, with your family falling apart, and still go ahead and solve the crime.
You mentioned Banks' divorce from his wife Sandra in Blood at the Root. Did you know from your first book that their marriage was doomed?
No, I didn't set out to have them split. That change just had to happen eventually. Banks needed a kick in the pants, like Philo Vance. And this was one way of doing it. This also frees him up. Suddenly, he's free to have other relationships. But, of course, after all those years of being married, he doesn't know quite how to chat up women anymore. I wouldn't know, either.
It's funny: I'd always assumed that Banks would be the one to cause a split with his wife, rather the other way around.
Yeah, he's always had a wandering eye, but he's never actually done anything about it. It was a little different to give her the boyfriend, wasn't it? That was unexpected. Which is why I did it that way.
Ross Macdonald used to say that he wasn't his character of Lew Archer, but in many respects, Lew Archer was him. How much of Alan Banks is you?
A fair bit. We share interests in music and other tastes. But I've thought, especially since looking more into Banks' past lately, that we may well have been the same person till about age 18 or 19, and then we went in completely different directions. I think we shared a lot more in youth. But now he's doing a job that I don't think I could do. I don't think I'd be temperamentally suited to deal with the officiousness that he has to. I would just tell Jimmy Riddle to fuck off, and I'd walk out. I've done that in jobs before. But Banks is pretty good at putting up with such things. Plus, he's more physically astute than I am. He's a little scrapper. He's not afraid of getting down and dirty, whereas I don't like physical violence at all. I'd probably faint at the sight of blood.
Haven't you sat in on autopsies or such, just in order to concoct elements of your fiction?
No, I've been invited, but I've always turned those opportunities down. I write from my imagination -- that's enough for me, although I've ridden around with the cops and even witnessed a shooting once. But no autopsies yet. Maybe one day.
Or maybe not. After all, you don't fill your novels with a lot of blood and gore. Not like some writers.
And mostly violence and gore aren't necessary. Unless you're trying to write a book in which that is the point, like Thomas Harris. I've always believed that, if there is violence, then you should make it as unpleasant as it really is. But most of the violence takes place offstage in my books. You come on the stage and see the results of it, as in Blood at the Root. But the horror of death is not always in the gruesome stuff; sometimes it's more in the details. Like the woman in Caedmon's Song who's dragging a body into a cave, and she gets her hangnail caught in the [corpse's] sock. That's more creepy to me than any amount of blood spurting or heads being hacked off. You can easily get inured to that extreme violence.
I'm interested in the fact that you've been in Canada now for more than two decades, yet none of your novels is set in Canada. Why is that?
I did set part of one Banks book, The Hanging Valley, in Toronto. That was fun to do. And I've set a number of short stories in Canada; I don't seem to have a problem with that. But I really think I'm the kind of writer who needs distance to be able to write about a place. Whenever I try to set entire novels in Canada -- and I have tried some, only to abandon them later -- I've been too overwhelmed by the presence of the place. I am not able to free up my imagination to be able to deal with what is right outside my window. Whereas, writing about Yorkshire -- especially a partly imagined Yorkshire -- I've got much more freedom. Other writers are completely different. I mean, [British novelist] John Harvey's a good friend of mine, and he's decided not to write anymore Charlie Resnick books. He told me that it's partly because he doesn't live in Nottingham anymore, and he needed to have all of that around him to be able to write about it.
How often do you start a book, only to later abandon it?
Not that often, fortunately. I did it more often in the early days, when I was less sure of a start. Now, though, if I begin a Banks book, I may have to do some rewriting, change a lot, but it generally works.
And do you find yourself recasting those few unfinished books as part of Banks novels somewhere down the road?
Well, I've done that before, with Innocent Graves. That book started out as a short story called "Innocence." The idea came from a situation I was in: I'd gone to an unfamiliar town in England, and I was waiting for someone to pick me up at the train station. I was feeling anxious -- what if he didn't come to meet me after all? -- and I was watching all of these school kids going by. I started to imagine this guy who seemed to be behaving suspiciously, asking the kids what time school was out and such. Later, a schoolgirl is murdered, and the police go looking for this guy, track him down because he used his Visa card somewhere nearby. He's the kind of person who the police don't like, so they think he might be capable of the murder. There's a trial, and then they find the real killer, so they let this suspect go. But the experience has changed him so much that you're not sure whether he's going to commit suicide... or become a killer himself.
Well, the idea worked as a short story. So I spent a year turning it into a novel, which I also called Innocence, and it was all told from the point of view of this wrongly accused person. Unfortunately, my agent hated the book, and my publisher said it was publishable, but not easily marketable, because the narrator is not really a sympathetic character. Discouraged, I put that novel aside. However, when I got the idea of writing Innocent Graves, I thought I could build that earlier story into a Banks novel. Banks would be the sympathetic character, and I'd then have this other guy who's wrongly suspected of a crime. That's how Innocent Graves came about.
Let's talk about In a Dry Season. How did that story develop?
Often my stories are inspired by places. In this instance, it was a reservoir that I had visited near Otley, Yorkshire, in 1995. The water had all dried up, and what remained of the drowned village of West End was on view for the first time since the late 1970s. I just got an eerie feeling walking around there. And, of course, I imagined what if someone found a body that had been hidden underwater there for decades.
I'm curious: Only months before In a Dry Season came out, British author Reginald Hill published his novel On Beulah Height, in which yet another town -- and another mystery -- are exposed from beneath a reservoir. Is there any reason for this plot similarity?
I don't know, really. I haven't talked with Reg about it. But it knocked my socks off that he did that. Because I'd just finished writing In a Dry Season when I read in a book catalogue about On Beulah Height. And I thought, Oh, shit, no! No way! How could the bastard do this to me? [He laughs.] Well, I wound up buying On Beulah Height, but I couldn't stand to read it till my book was actually set in print. Then, when I did read it, I thought, What the hell was I worried about? Apart from the reservoir, there are no comparisons to be made.
By the way, that wasn't the only other reservoir book. J. Wallis Martin came out with one of her own, A Likeness in Stone  -- although there wasn't a dried-up reservoir in that one, but somebody did find a body sort of buried in a reservoir. These coincidences just can't be avoided. We're authors, after all, not mind readers.
Earlier, you mentioned your next Banks novel. What is that one going to be called?
Cold Is the Grave. And it basically starts with Chief Constable Riddle's 8-year-old son playing on the computer and coming across a picture of his runaway 16-year-old sister naked on a porn site. Riddle finds out about it, and, since he is grooming himself for politics -- and, of course, he cares about his daughter, too -- he's desperately concerned. So what does he do? He calls in old Banks, because he knows he's the best man for the job.
That should put Banks in a unique -- and uniquely powerful -- position. He and Riddle aren't exactly the best of chums.
No, not at all. So Riddle plays on his sympathies. He says, "You have a daughter of your own -- what would you feel like if this happened to her?" And also, of course, Riddle promises Banks that if he helps him, his career will no longer be on hold. So Banks agrees to try and see what the situation is, see how much damage has been done. And for the first 100 pages of so, he's acting pretty much like a private eye in London. He's pretending to be the girl's father himself, trying to find her, and he's not identifying himself as a policeman. Of course, things get really complicated after that.
After doing about three books in which Riddle was just Banks' nemesis, a very officious character, I wanted to give him more dimensions and find out where he's coming from -- what makes him tick, why he hates Banks, and what he values in his own life. So this book really is as much about Riddle as it is about Banks. Again, it's a matter of setting myself a challenge. I asked myself, "What would be really tough to do with Riddle?" And the answer was: Make Riddle a human being.
I understand that in Cold Is the Grave you're also bringing back the character of Detective Sergeant Annie Cabbot, who made such an impression on Banks -- and readers -- in In a Dry Season.
[Smiling broadly] Yeah, I've got to. I really am stuck with her. I like her. It's tough to figure out a way to bring her back, but I think I've figured out a way that works and causes more problems -- which is what the book needs.
You've published 12 novels thus far, and out of those only two -- Caedmon's Song and No Cure for Love -- have been non-Banks stories. Do you have more in mind to write?
Oh, yeah. And I've written a number of short stories that are not Banks stories. The problem is in selling them. People want the Banks books to such an extent that neither Caedmon's Song nor No Cure for Love has even been published in the U.S. My American publisher, Avon -- especially since they've done a big push with In a Dry Season -- clearly want to follow with more Banks. So when I'm going to get the luxury to do another non-series story -- though I do have some notes for one -- I don't know. I guess I'll have to write it in my spare time.
Do you read the work of your fellow crime novelists?
I don't read as much as I used to do, because when I'm writing a lot, I don't particularly want to read. But I try to keep up. I'll always read the British ones: Robert Barnard, Reg Hill, Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, and P.D. James -- I still like her. I also read Ian Rankin and John Harvey. Of the Americans, I enjoy Michael Connelly. Also James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, Ed McBain, Dennis Lehane -- I like that hard-boiled, violent stuff. I tend not to read very many American female writers, though I still like Marcia Muller's stuff, and I also read Linda Barnes and Julie Smith's New Orleans stories. Then I try and keep up on all of my writer friends in Canada.
What do you think of Canadian crime fiction? It doesn't get a lot of publicity outside of Canada. But there is a great deal of it to be read.
I don't quite understand why it isn't better known. There are some great writers up here. Look at Alison Gordon [Prairie Hardball]. Or Laurence Gough [Shutterbug] from Vancouver, who doesn't have much presence in the States. The only reason I do is because my stories are set in Britain, rather than Canada. And it's not fair. I mean, what about Gail Bowen [Verdict in Blood] or L.R. Wright [Acts of Murder]? They could all have a much higher profile, but I think the Canadian setting turns off American readers.
Perhaps it's not exotic enough. Americans have this idea that Canada is very similar to the United States, only it's less populated and its cities aren't as tough. So they don't look for tough crime novels to come out of Vancouver or Montreal or Toronto.
Although people are now starting to write about Toronto in a tough way, treating it as a dirtier, grungier, urban environment. I like the work of Eric Wright [Buried in Stone], for instance. Or John Simpson [Undercut]. Or Scott Mackay [Cold Comfort]. There's also a female private-eye writer, Liz Brady, who just published her first book [Sudden Blow] and won the Ellis Award for it. And Rosemary Aubert came out with a book last year called Free Reign, which did very well in the States. Her detective is an ex-judge, who's now a vagrant in Toronto. So it may well be that Americans will one day accept Toronto, at least, as a crime fiction setting.
You say you like the hard-boiled, more urban story. Do you ever wish that you'd put Banks to work in a larger town than Eastvale?
Sometimes I think maybe I should have set the Banks series in Leeds or someplace like that. But I've been making Eastvale more urban, already -- expanding it, even though it remains relatively photogenic. It's now bigger than any other town around it. And it has a lot of the same problems as big cities have. I've also sent Banks to Leeds and other places during cases, so the stories have managed to get around to bigger cities. I think it would be difficult nowadays to do a purely country mystery. They aren't contemporary enough. There's something very dated about the Agatha Christie kind of world.
If you could have written any book in this genre, other than those that currently carry your name, which book would it be?
I'd love to have written The Maltese Falcon, because I love Hammett's dialogue and use of language. Or almost any of Chandler's, like The Big Sleep. And I think I'm probably saying this because theirs is a style I can't write in. I'd love to write a really great American private-eye novel in the American style. But that's a voice that is alien to me. I can appreciate the style, but if I try to write in it, it sounds false. It's like my trying to speak with an American accent. Even my Los Angeles book, No Cure for Love, wasn't written in first-person, and the main character was a Brit in LA. I didn't try to do the Marlowe voice. I would find that very difficult, given my literary and English backgrounds. In terms of style, I probably have more in common with Victorian novelists than I do with American hard-boiled, first-person private-eye writers.
But I'd still someday like to write the sort of dialogue that Bogey could read with a straight face. | July 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.