Sunday, January 20, 2008

Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson

After no less than 17 dramatic murder investigations, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks might be forgiven for thinking that his sleepy little police department in the north east of England isn't all that sleepy at all!

But nevertheless, British/Canadian author Peter Robinson keeps churning out Inspector Banks mysteries and our aging detective dutifully plods through official police procedure to solve them. The most recent is recounted in Robinson's latest paperback, Friend of the Devil.

I was given an advance reading copy of this novel by Barnes and Noble, so I entered into the world of Detective Chief Inspector Banks without reference to any of his previous sixteen adventures. Fortunately, Robinson has a quick and engaging writing style and he hooks even the most unwitting reader (i.e. me) by presenting not just one, but two grisly murders within the first few pages.

There's a nineteen year old teenager who got herself raped and strangled in 'the Maze' of twisting passages in an old Yorkshire market town. Then there's a quadriplegic woman who was wheeled out of her care home onto a deserted cliff side and had her throat sliced open with a razor. Gory stuff - and Robinson doesn't skimp on the details.

Detective Banks tackles the murdered girl, while his old lover Annie Cabbot investigates the corpse in the wheelchair. Cue 372 pages of perfectly researched police procedure and angst-ridden, alcohol fueled character development.

I should lay my cards on the table. Police drama isn't really my thing. I'm no great fan of CSI and I only watch Law & Order for the courtroom bits. But Peter Robinson presents a clearly well-researched story which perfectly illustrates what a tedious, thankless task police investigation really is.

Equally tedious are the less successful attempts at characterization. Inspector Banks is a blank slate - the pages Robinson could have used to flesh out his character are instead wasted on a practically verbatim track-listing from his iPod and a menu of his preferred Tesco's and Sainsbury's supermarket meals. After finishing the book, I felt like I'd know what to cook for dinner and put on the stereo if Inspector Banks ever came round for supper - but I was still no closer to understanding what made the man tick.

The murder plot is handled better. The poor girl's case is wrapped up neatly, giving us a convincing red herring to lead us astray, but finally providing a murderer who's identity is satisfying, yet unexpected.

The second murder - the real crux of the book - isn't quite as convincing. The 'solution' to that murder is discovered less than half-way through the book's 372 page length. However, the vital 'who' is only discovered within the last two pages and the denouement is both unsatisfactory and trite. The key to a satisfying murder-mystery is to have had to opportunity to uncover the murderer yourself through consideration of the clues. Instead, Robinson hands us the 'solution' far too early and picks the identity of the final villain seemingly at random from a selection of barely-mentioned supporting characters.

Friend of the Devil is not a bad book by any means - Peter Robinson is a fluent and effective writer and his knowledge of police-procedure is top-notch. However, this is clearly a book for fans of the series and first-time readers would do best to start slightly earlier in the 'Inspector Banks' canon.'

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