WATCHING THE DARK
By Peter Robinson
William Morrow, 2013 ($25.99)
Reviewed by Larry Jung
Peter Robinson's 20th book featuring Chief Inspector Alan Banks looks at the drastic increase in drugs, people-trafficking, and illegal labor originating from the former Soviet Baltic states. Much of this is blamed on the so-called Russian Mafia, whose criminal influence has reached the rural countryside of Chief Inspector Bank's Eastvale. Banks himself is going through a mid-life crisis. He is in-between relationships. His son and daughter are adults and making their own way. Sandra, his former wife, has started another family with her new husband. Professionally, Banks has reached a dead end. His current boss is relatively young and with the current downsizing of the police, there are no openings for any advancement. Going back to London or to special operations does not appeal to him. Banks has retreated into a solitary personal life. His CD music collection, books, and booze are his regular companions.
Inspector Alan Banks is called to the murder scene of a man killed by a crossbow. What makes this case special is not just the murder weapon, but that the man killed is a serving police detective. The initial observations of the crime scene leads Banks to conclude that the victim Bill Quinn was lured to his death. But what would make an experienced copper fall into such a trap? Banks finds damaging photos carelessly hidden in Quinn's room showing the latter in sexually compromising positions with what appears to be an underage girl. Blackmail. A payoff to the blackmailer that somehow when wrong? Or did Quinn decide to tell the blackmailer he wasn't paying anymore?
The investigation gets complicated when police internal affairs, renamed Professional Services, becomes involved to investigate possible improper conduct by Quinn. This complication manifests itself as an Inspector Joanna Passero who is assigned to tag along with Banks. Of course Banks protests that Professional Services is out to get Quinn and will get in the way of Banks finding the murderer. He is overruled. It doesn't help that Inspector Joanna Passero is ambitious as well as an attractive blonde.
Following his detective instincts, Banks, in the face of constant objections from Joanna, starts to concentrate the murder investigation on an English girl who disappeared six years ago in Estonia and was never found. Bill Quinn was involved in this case and became obsessed with guilt at not finding her. As the investigation stalls and starts, Joanna is like a mill stone around Bank's neck. Fortunately Detective Inspector Anne Cabot, Banks' former lover and trusted colleague, is assigned to assist Banks on the case.
The case takes Banks and Cabot into the local underworld of Eastvale and Leeds. A local villain by the name of Corrigan was being actively investigated by Bill Quinn. Banks wanted to know if Corrigan had made threats against Quinn.
"Banks had dealt with criminals like Corrigan before. They didn't really see themselves as criminals, or else they were so cynical about society and human nature that it didn't matter to them what they were, as long as they had the power and the money. On the surface everything was all very cozy and upper middle class, ponies and piano lessons for the kiddies, cashmere sweaters, Hugo Boss suits, Beemers and Range Rovers, golf club memberships, perhaps even a friend or two on the local council. Underneath, it's another matter. A trail of misery and woe, broken bodies and trampled souls going as far back as the eye can see. Someone had to pay for the Corrigans of this world to live in luxury, after all, whether they be junkies, gamblers, or just poor sods who fell for the whole consumer-society deal hook, line and sinker." (Page 136)
Banks discovers a tenuous connection with Bill Quinn's investigation of Corrigan and Bill Quinn's failed investigation of Rachel Hewitt: the Baltic nation of Estonia and the migrant-labor camps around Eastvale and Leeds. What does Rachel Hewitt, a normal Eastvale young woman on a "hen party" to Estonia, have to do with illegal people trafficking from Estonia?
WATCHING THE DARK is not one of the better books in the Chief Inspector Alan Banks series. Despite Peter Robinson's deft characterizations and sense of place, I felt little emotional involvement with any of the major characters. Bill Quinn and Rachel Hewitt remained just names. Even the scenes with Quinn's daughter and Hewitt's best friend didn't generate any sympathy. Bank's tension with Joanna did little to advance the plot and for all the pages it covered, there was nothing in the end to justify her character. (I don't know if it is merely coincidence that the pilot for the TV show based on Peter Robinson's Chief Inspector Alan Banks character also has an attractive internal affairs officer dogging Banks during an investigation. Even a similar scene with the internal affairs officer ruining her dress shoes in the country muck.) Though credit goes to Banks for following his copper's nose to Estonia, this is not one of Bank's and Cabot's more brilliant investigations. Also, the immigrant-labor camps and people trafficking aspect has been covered recently by several mystery/crime series. Robinson in WATCHING THE DARK fails to add anything new or fresh.
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