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It's hard to explain the enduring appeal of the Inspector Banks books and the lead character himself makes for an unlikely hero. In an age where novels have to be increasingly violent and feature dozens of bloody corpses littering the landscape, poor old Banks has to plod along with old-fashioned police work where murders often involve a single corpse hastily killed and badly hidden.
The Hanging Valley - the third in the Banks series - is no different, building on the strengths of previous books and, whilst it won't be to everyone's tastes, provides more of the same for everyone who has enjoyed the Inspector's adventures to date.
There's no doubt that part of Banks' appeal is that his adventures are more realistic. What sets him apart from modern detective fiction is that he's relatively normal and you can well believe that he exists. He's not schizophrenic or agoraphobic; he doesn't have a drug habit or visit prostitutes; he isn't a "maverick cop out to get results"; he's not corrupt, doesn't drive a jaguar and is completely free of all the other personal foibles that authors now seem determined to foist upon fictional detectives. The personal failings he has, he shares with many of us: he smokes and drinks a little too much; he gets irrationally annoyed at the small irritating habits of other people, whilst remaining oblivious to his own. In other words, he is just an ordinary man doing a difficult job as best he can. This helps to endear him to the reader and means that they can understand and identify with him.
Similarly, the plot is a more straightforward, realistic reflection of police work, rather than the glossy, sexy version we tend to see on TV or read about in other books. Murders are mundane and usually committed for petty personal reasons. They are not the latest in a long line of serial killings committed by an unhinged murderer who is setting some sort of tortuous pattern for the police to fathom out. They are also solved by a lot of hard work and occasional huge slices of luck, rather than relying on unlikely plot coincidences. Whilst scientific evidence play a part in the plot, The Hanging Valley is not police procedural in the style of CSI and, in contrast to Susan Hills Simon Serrailler series, it doesn't rely on the same soap opera angle, where the personal lives of the characters are arguably more important than the police investigations. Indeed, apart from a few brief mentions of his wife, The Hanging Valley scarcely features Banks outside the context of his job.
The same is true of other aspects of the book. The gentler pace befits the slower, rural setting; the lack of sensational murders ironically gives it a new, fresh feel. I say ironic because The Hanging Valley was first published in the late 1980s, so pre-dates much modern police fiction. However, because it has a different pace and focus, it feels fresher than all the copycat murder-thrillers.
The Hanging Valley is just a simple story, well told. It doesn't require sensationalist plotlines to hook the reader, just well-constructed characters and honest, careful plotting. Sure, it doesn't take a great deal of brain power to work out the guilty party - as in real police work, the most likely suspect is usually the actual guilty party - it's just a case of proving it. Yet, this simplicity works in the book's favour. From early on in The Hanging Valley, Banks has very strong suspicions about who the guilty party is (although a few red herrings are thrown his way, just to keep things interesting!). Proving it is another matter entirely.
A mild criticism of previous Banks books has been that they were set in and written during the 1980s. Whilst there was nothing wrong with this as such, it did mean that they were a product of their time. In the intervening 20 years, the political and social situation of the 80s and the attitudes of people have changed significantly (sometimes for the better, sometimes not). This meant that, the books could sometimes appear a little dated. This is not the case with The Hanging Valley. Although it is still set in the 80s, this has little relevance to the actual plot, other than providing a bit of background context. The Hanging Valley has a rather timeless feel to it - it could be set in the 30s or in the current decade, which is a positive advance on the previous titles in the series
The one slightly disappointing aspect was the ending which felt a little rushed. After 300 pages of ambling along, Robinson suddenly seemed to be in indecent haste to wrap things up quickly. The final few pages were particularly disappointing and left several strands dangling around untidily. I'm all for open endings, since they reflect real life far more accurately, but this one was perhaps a little too open. Having invested so much time and effort in reading the plot, it felt like a slight let down.
With its quaint, slightly old-fashioned feel, The Hanging Valley may be different from the more spectacular murder-mystery novels that litter our bookshelves these days, but that's no bad thing. The slower pace and occasionally ambling narrative style won't suit everyone, but it is a breath of fresh air. In a very overcrowded market, the Banks books stand out as offering something a little bit different.
The Hanging Valley
Pan, new edition, 2002
© Copyright SWSt 2012
The Hanging Valley is the fourth of Peter Robinson's Inspector Alan Banks bookd. In the previous three, he firmly established Banks as the police inspector of the small community of Eastvale in Yorkshire, with excellent characterisation and development throughout the books.
This fourth book introduces our main police characters to a horde of new 'locals' as Banks and the police investigate the finding of a decaying body set up on the moors in a hanging valley. There are, once more, plenty of suspects and a complete lack of people willing to come forward to help the police first of all find out who the body is, and then what happened. One thing is sure, and that is that the cause of death points to a murderer somewhere in the midst.
One thing that I noticed was very commendable about this book is that Robinson deviates a bit from the mould of his previous books, keen to give something different to what he has written before. As the investigation gets increasingly difficult, the only lead Banks has takes him to Canada, pursuing an apparently missing woman who may just hold the key the mystery and potentially point them in the direction of the murderer by filling in the historical gaps.
Robinson's plots are usually very well worked out, and this is no exception. The characterisation and plot developments go hand in hand, and even the most trivial sounding snippets of information the lead investigators gain is important at some stage. As with all Banks book that I have read so far, and I am now on his sixth, the book does take a while to get going, but once it does, there's no putting it down. I found it very entertaining, and the book is a very welcome addition to the collection of his that I have.
Aside from the slow starts, the other thing that tends to annoys me about Robinson's writing is the abrupt endings to the books, and this one is no different. It is very good in teasing you into the build up towards the end, giving you about ten or fifteen pages where the plot is finally unravels, but then an abrupt finish makes you wonder if the story is continued in the next book! However, this didn't detratct from my ultimate enjoyment of this 4th Banks book, and the moment I finished, I went to pick up the 5th, Past Reason Hated, to give that one a whirl.
I recommend this book as well as the other Banks books from Robinson. They retail at £6.99 and are available at most bookshops, although it's probably worth having a look online for cheaper copies as well as trawling the charity shops.