Book: Playing with Fire

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Playing with Fire: A Novel of Suspense

Author: Peter Robinson
Publisher: William Morrow
Fire. It violently destroys futures and pasts in a terrified heartbeat, devouring damning secrets while leaving even greater mysteries in its foul wake of ash and debris.

The night sky is ablaze as fire engulfs two barges moored end to end on a Yorkshire canal. On board are the blackened remains of two human beings. One was a reclusive and eccentric local artist, the other a junkie, a sad and damaged young girl.

To the seasoned eye of Inspector Alan Banks, this horror was no accident, its method so cruel and calculated that only the worst sort of fiend could have committed the dark act. And it isn’t long before the fears of Banks and D.I. Annie Cabbot are brutally confirmed, when another suspicious blaze incinerates a remote trailer in the countryside…and another solitary life is gruesomely consumed.

But is it the work of a serial arsonist, or an ingeniously conceived plot to obliterate the trail to other heinous crimes? There are shocking secrets to be uncovered in the charred wreckage, grim evidence of lethal greed and twisted hunger, and of nightmare occurrences within the private confines of family. A terrible suspicion that a killer’s work is not yet done drives Alan Banks as the hunt intensifies for an elusive, cold-blooded chameleon who could be anyone and anywhere.

In Playing with Fire, award-winning, internationally bestselling author Peter Robinson delivers a modern masterwork of suspense that confirms his standing as one of the brightest literary lights in crime fiction—a blistering tale of murder and betrayal that is as frightening, devastating, and hypnotic as flame itself.


One of the principle pleasures to be found in reading any of Peter Robinson’s more recent British suspense novels is to see how dexterously this author uses seemingly small, confined crimes to wedge open much larger troves of hidden or historical chicanery. In Playing with Fire, the plot catalyst is a blaze that consumes two rotting barges moored in a Yorkshire canal, killing their squatter inhabitants—Tina Aspern, a pretty, teenage heroin abuser, and Thomas McMahon, a once-promising but “derivative” landscape painter who’d fallen on hard times. Accident or arson? The best suspects, in either event, may be Tina’s cheating boyfriend, Mark Siddons, and a rumored peeping tom who’d taken his time—and more—reporting the conflagration. However, as Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his colleague and ex-lover, Annie Cabbot (both last seen in Close to Home), gather together the disparate threads of this case, new questions arise, suggesting that the inferno was intended to cover up still worse misdeeds. Why, for instance, had McMahon been buying old books and prints from an Eastvale antiquarian dealer? Is it true, as an angry Siddons alleges, that Tina had turned to drugs in order to blot out the pain of her stepfather’s carnal advances? And what tie, if any, is there between these boat burnings and the subsequent torching of a trailer home occupied by a “quiet bloke,” who perished while in possession of an unknown and potentially valuable J.M.W. Turner watercolor?

As attentive as Robinson is to plot progression, spicing up his narrative with arcane knowledge about fire accelerants and competition in the painting biz (“The art world’s brutal,” Banks is warned early on in this story), he doesn’t forget that a substantial part of the attraction of this series derives from its two evolving main characters. The contemplative, jazz-loving Banks, worried by the superficiality of his latest relationship, with a “wounded” fellow cop, finds himself increasingly jealous here of Annie’s suave new boyfriend, an art researcher whose past may be short a few brushstrokes. At the same time, Annie is drawn hesitantly closer again to Banks by tragic circumstances. Although Robinson’s subplot about Tina’s sexual violation concludes in a rather B-movieish way, Playing with Fire is redeemed by its scorching climax and suggestively ragged denouement. Peter Robinson, together with Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill, and others, is reinvigorating the British police procedural. —J. Kingston Pierce

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