Back in November 2012, I ordered the first series of DCI Banks on DVD from amazon.co.uk, an ITV crime drama series starring Stephen Tompkinson as, well, DCI Alan Banks and Andrea Lowe as Annie Cabbot. For one reason and another, I really enjoy the traditional British police procedural: there’s some bizarre murder, after which proceeds a nicely drawn and perhaps drawn-out investigation of the crime, with lots of character development along the way. The epitome of this type of drama was undoubtedly Inspector Morse, with Endeavour following in those footsteps. DCI Banks was possibly not quite as well done as those, but it was nevertheless interesting to me because of the setting: somewhere in Yorkshire. Never really properly positioned unlike Morse’s Oxford, just assumed to be up there somewhere. Although I’ve never lived in Yorkshire, my parents have, and I consider myself a proto-Yorkshireman, having explored pretty much all of the Dales and most of the Moors. All in all, I enjoyed the episodes a great deal.
After I’d ordered and watched the second series about six weeks later, I decided I really should read the novels by Peter Robinson upon which the TV series are based. Visiting his website, I saw that there were 20 novels in the series (the 21st has just been published), with the latest one still in hardback. Since a third TV series seemed to be a way away (as it happens, it’s just started airing in the UK), it was time to start reading with the first in the series: Gallows View.
And then came the first realization: the reason the TV series didn’t seem to mention where they’re placed is that the books are set in an invented town in North Yorkshire called Eastvale. There was a little map in this first novel showing Eastvale, and it looked a great deal like Richmond, a town with which I’m very familiar. Castle, check. River, check. Market Square, check. Head of a dale, check. In fact, reading the novels, you realize that Robinson seems to have inserted a new dale (with a new river called the Swain) just south of Swaledale and perhaps north of Wensleydale. To me, it looks pretty much like Swaledale with Eastvale/Richmond at the head of the dale.
Even at this remove, I’m just not sure how successful this gambit was. Knowing the area well, I found it a little disconcerting in places with the result that it would flip me out of the action. Consider: Morse in set in Oxford, pure and simple. Yes, the plot is made up, and so are the characters, but setting it in a real place helps ground it. In fact, knowing Oxford a little helped greatly with those episodes (and Dexter’s novels, when I read them). Setting the books in a fictitious place made it doubly hard to get in the flow for me, to suspend my disbelief. I actually gave up and “translated” the plot to Swaledale and Richmond. When Robertson described a house, a village, a town, some streets, I would place them in my mind’s eye to places I already knew.
I suppose this goes back to my childhood, reading authors like Enid Blyton (no idea where the places are she describes for The Famous Five, for example) or Malcolm Saville (always set in a real place or town – as I kid I really wanted to see Long Mynd but didn’t make it until my late 40s). Same with Arthur Ransome and Swallows and Amazons: yeah for the Lake District and Lake Windermere.
Once I’d got over that particular point, I settled into the novels fairly quickly and got to genuinely enjoy the Yorkshire feel of the plots. Gallows View had the feel of a first novel but was nevertheless interesting and Banks solved it nicely, along with the twist. Next up was A Dedicated Man, set in a small village in Swainsdale (heck, call it Reeth) with some characters that can only inhabit English country crime novels. Of course the suspect most obvious at the start was not the real villain by the end, but Banks is not fooled. Another map in this one, but that was it from now on: the next novel A Necessary End had none and neither did any of the others. It was with this one, I think, that Robinson started to settle down with his writing and his characters started to flesh out.
I suppose there is a fundamental flaw in police procedurals: you know that one of the characters that the author is at pains to introduce is going to be the bad guy, but you also know that they’re going to toss in some “clues” to throw you off the scent and lead you away from the real villain. Also, in real life, with real murders, the villain is not that bright and is not likely to be able to fool the police for long. As for covering his or her tracks, puh-lease. That’s another reason why I enjoyed Robinson’s novels so much: yeah, the crime detection proceeds “normally” but there’s a great deal of character-building so that you enjoy the rapport between the main characters and can understand how they might be led astray or that they miss a clue or that they don’t spot someone lying or telling the whole truth. This is not like reading Colin Dexter at all. Reading these novels I got to delight in Banks’ characterization and the people he was surrounded with: his wife and children, Annie Cabbot, his superiors, the rest of his team, “Dirty Dick” Burgess, and so on.
Having said that, the later novels, for example All the Colours of Darkness and especially Bad Boy, I found to be more heavy-duty characterization with lightweight plot rather than the other way around. In fact, Colours annoyed me somewhat because of that (Banks just happened to be present at a terrorist explosion, really?) but I managed to finish it, whereas Bad Boy sat on my bedside cabinet for a couple of months because I just could not believe the character of Banks’ daughter and what she was doing (plus, I suppose, there was no whodunnit per se, it was more of a thriller than a mystery). Eventually I finished it by skipping/surfing the first third and then reading on.
The 20th novel in the series, Watching the Dark, is now out in paperback, so once I’ve finished Stonemouth by Iain Banks, I’ll be reading it. Despite my disappointment with the later books, I’ve greatly savored and loved the series as a whole. And the placement of Eastvale in North Yorkshire hasn’t helped with my ex-pat homesickness at all. Thanks, Peter Robinson, I’ll remember that…