In a Dry Season
Peter Robinson, internationally acclaimed author of literary suspense, knows the serenity found in the rustic Yorkshire countryside can be deceptive. For evil can strike in the most pastoral of surroundings, and go unpunished for years-even decades.
Water is the essence of life. Yet during a dry season, when supply cannot meet demand, the precious commodity rapidly drains from a manmade reservoir to reveal a forgotten town that was sacrificed for the sake of water. A blistering summer has struck, and thirst has consumed the resources provided by the Thornfield Resevoir, unmasking the remains of Hobb’s End, a small village at its bottom that ceased to exist in post World War II England.
A curious child thinks of the resurfaced hamlet as a mystical playground, until he unearths a human skeleton. Modern forensics determine that the skeleton belongs to a young woman who appears to have been brutally murdered and hidden beneath the floor of a decrepit outbuilding in the 1940’s. It falls to a grudge-wielding police superior to select a detective for the impossible task of putting a name to the unidentifiable remains from a place that no longer exists, and whose living former residents are scattered to the winds.
Having challenged the system and his superiors once too often, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks has been restricted to desk duty as punishment for insubordination, until an official telephone call lands him in the muck of the decades-old murder. Given the state of affairs, any sensible policeman would throw in the towel, but not Banks.
Aided by Annie Cabbot, an intuitive Detective Sergeant, Banks challenges the odds by identifying the victim and proceeds to uncover the past buried beneath a flood of time, indiscretions and denial.
Detective chief inspector Alan Banks is a walking midlife crisis, full of rage because of his recently failed marriage, a career crippled by a jealous superior, and problems with his son. In less skilled hands, Banks could have quickly become a royal pain, but Robinson makes him instead a very likable character, who is slightly baffled and bemused by his bad luck. When he criticizes his son Brian’s decision to drop out of college to become a rock musician, Banks quickly regrets it—recognizing the same impulses that made him rebel against his own parents, and some of the pain he felt when a college friend died of a drug overdose. The realization that Brian’s heavy-metal band is actually quite good brings genuine pleasure to a man whose idea of rock is Love’s Forever Changes and other 1970s delights.
Banks is assigned to work on a case that the Yorkshire police department considers to be somewhat of a joke. The skeleton of a woman wrapped in World War II blackout curtains has been found in a dried-out reservoir. This man-made watering hole was a village—Hobbs End—that had been flooded many years earlier. Through the journal of a major player we realize early on who the dead woman is, but a large part of the fun is watching Banks and an edgy, attractive female cop put the pieces of the puzzle together. In a Dry Season is a stylish and gently reflective tale of secrets and lies.
Banks’s other books include Wednesday’s Child, Final Account, and Blood at the Root. —Dick Adler
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Whither the Great Detectives?
I’m not sure if the title of the panel actually included the word “whither,” but it should have. It was starchy enough. It was an online discussion of whatever happened to all those brainiacs known as the Great Detectives of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
I was asked to participate because I hate the so-called Golden Age. All panels need dissenters.
All this preamble is by way of saying that I actually learned quite a bit from the panel. And now I’ve read a novel that puts the whole Golden Age discussion into perspective.
Forty years ago, Peter Robinson’s Chief Inspector Alan Banks would have been a Great Detective. He probably would have said “Zounds!” and leapt to Sherlockian conclusions every time he was presented with tiny, arcane bits of evidence. He would have had no life whatever outside the plot. He would have been permitted one eccentricity (I have always wanted one of those guys to experience flatulence every time he was in the presence of royalty), and he would doubtless have had a servant or two of “foreign” birth to assist him in his criminological travails. As I said, the Golden Age ain’t exactly my spot of tea.
But fortunately, it isn’t 40 years ago. And, also fortunately, Peter Robinson is determined to stretch the limits of the mystery form so that it becomes serious without becoming Serious, if you know what I mean. This is what became, thank God, of the Great Detective.
This very British crime novel looks in some depth at 1) the dynamics of a bad marriage, 2) the aching grief of a father and son who can no longer communicate, 3) the daily despondence one feels working for a boss who loathes you. The mystery itself deals with the discovery of a corpse that has been hidden away for several decades. Our Inspector Banks investigates. The clueing is as fecund as Christie and the writing graceful and evocative. The twists are done especially well; and the ending, with Banks learning that time is not linear but circular, has a quiet power that will remain with you long after you’ve forgotten some of the noisier novels of recent note.
In a Dry Season is also, if this sort of thing interests you, a very enlightening look at modern detection. While a number of novelists use police technology as their theme, Banks is one of the few writers who is able to show us how all the various processes apply to an actual case. Unlike a Great Detective, Banks shows us how a person might really go about trying to piece together a case, particularly one that is nearly 50 years old. It is not only a fine novel of character, it is also an excellent detective story.
Robinson is the real thing—storyteller and stylist, very much in the Simenon mold, but with a melancholy eye and wan humor all his own. In a Dry Season is a very good novel indeed. —Ed Gorman