When I first interviewed Peter Robinson, back in 1999, the British-born Canadian crime writer was still largely unknown and underappreciated. Even after publishing a dozen novels, a couple of which had captured major awards.
But that was the year his “breakout book,” In a Dry Season—his 10th police procedural featuring dogged and hunch-trusting Yorkshire Det. Chief Insp. Alan Banks—reached stores. The recipient of widespread critical acclaim, it boosted his profile significantly, not only in the United States, but also in the UK and mainland Europe. Ever since, he’s been regular contender in fiction-prize competitions on both sides of the Atlantic and a popular guest at crime-fiction conventions.
His 20th Banks outing, Watching the Dark, seems destined to enhance his rep. It finds the DCI probing the crossbow killing of a fellow cop, Bill Quinn, who was staying at a rural care facility. Compromising photos in Quinn’s room hint at his possible corruption, leading an internal affairs inspector to demand that she accompany Banks as he investigates. This twisted but exhilarating case will lead Banks to the slaying of an undercover journalist and off to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, where Quinn had sought the fate of a vanished English bridesmaid six years earlier.
I recently asked Robinson why and how he concocted Watching the Dark, and about the still-new British TV drama based on his Banks series.
Was there something particular that motivated your telling the story we find in Watching the Dark?
My stories usually start with a place. Unless I find that place, I can’t start the story. It’s like my key, my way in. Only then do the theme and the various plot strands emerge. In Watching the Dark I started with St. Peter’s, the convalescent home for injured policemen, and I had originally intended to set much of the book there; but, as usual, other ideas forced their way in.
I had read a couple of books about young girls or women disappearing abroad—especially Madeleine, by Kate McCann, and People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry—and I was particularly struck by how hard it was for their parents. Not only couldn’t they go through a normal grieving process, because they had no idea what had happened to their children—and in the case of Madeleine McCann, still don’t—but they also had to deal with confusing foreign police methods and the constant media attention.
I had also come across the phenomenon of the British stag and hen parties taking place in various European cities. With more disposable income and cheaper flights available, many people were holding their weekends in Dublin, Amsterdam or Prague, rather than closer to home. In a foreign country, they could get drunk and behave badly with impunity, or so they believed. After all, it wasn’t like being sick on your own doorstep. Tallinn was a popular destination. Naturally, when people get very drunk, they can behave carelessly as well atrociously, and young women are particularly vulnerable to the sort of predators who may hang around the edges of a crowd of binge drinkers, just waiting for the right moment.
Aside from part of its plot unfurling in the Baltics, do you see this as a different sort of entry in the Banks series?
I try to make every Banks book a little different from the one before. I don’t have a formula. There is a sort of structure, I suppose, as the books do follow police investigations, but it is a flexible structure. I realized that over the three previous Banks books, I had piled on the misery in his life, and in his job, so one thing I was conscious of doing was lessening the burden, the angst, and having him just get on with it, rather than dwelling on his problems as much as he had been. I think I must have been reading too much Scandinavian crime fiction! And he doesn’t often get to go abroad, so those scenes were fun to write.
Did you travel much to Tallinn before composing this new novel?
I was lucky enough to be invited to teach a crime-writing course at the University of Tallinn’s summer school around the time Watching the Dark was taking shape, so I decided that would be the destination for the hen party in the book. I had 10 days there, and a lovely apartment to myself in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to the Baltic States, and I made plenty of time to explore the nooks and crannies of the Old Town and beyond. Most of the places described in the book are real, and I enlisted the help of one of my students to read the manuscript and catch me out in any mistakes. She did a great job. I also talked to many people, including an undercover police officer, to try and get a sense of what the place was like and how it worked, given its difficult history. Of course, one can never fully understand a foreign land, but I managed to grasp as much as I needed to send Banks there for a week. That involved a little research into the local beers, too, of course!
Your novels have inspired a British TV series, DCI Banks, starring Stephen Tompkinson. UK residents have already seen two seasons of that show, and the first is slated for broadcast on PBS-TV stations this month. Were you apprehensive of how television might treat your characters and stories?
I really had no expectations. The books had been optioned on and off for years, but it wasn’t until Left Bank [Pictures] came along that things started to move in a more positive direction. I knew that the plots would be altered, and that the characters might not conform to the way I saw them.
I enjoy detective dramas on TV and have watched quite a lot of them over years, many based on books I’ve read, and I think I was aware that there’s only so much you can do in an hour and half of TV time, as opposed to 400 pages of a book. I was also aware that the bits people enjoy, like Banks sitting thinking things over in his conservatory drinking fine wine and listening to Bill Evans or a Schubert string quartet, would not translate well on to the screen. On the other hand, the Yorkshire landscapes look terrific, and we have been blessed with some excellent directors of photography.
Authors sometimes face difficulties when their work is translated for the small screen: they begin to meld their own storytelling vision to that of the TV producers. Can you continue to write the Banks books without being similarly influenced?
It was something that concerned me. When I came to write Watching the Dark, I had been away from Banks for a while, writing Before the Poison, and I had also seen the pilot and first TV series of DCI Banks, some of which I watched while I was in Tallinn. It took a bit of an effort to wrestle Banks back from the TV version and find my way into his world again, but I hope I succeeded. I was certainly conscious of reclaiming my Banks. I have tremendous respect for Stephen Tompkinson, and though he certainly didn’t match my idea of what Banks looks like, I think that he has developed the character wonderfully over the series so far.
So, what can readers expect from your next Banks book?
In this case, the victim is a middle-aged man living in a remote cottage by an abandoned railway track, and there’s a link back to the student life of the ’70s. I did find the starting place, the key, in the old railway, so I’m on my way. I don’t think there will be any exotic travel in this one, but there will likely be scenes in London and various other parts of the country.
Photo credit Niall McDiarmid