Monday, 3 October 2016
Before the Poison by Peter Robinson
I sat and watched while Heather filled the electric kettle and flicked the switch. She was a joy to behold, and a long way from being an old fuddy-duddy. An attractive woman in her early forties, I guessed, tall and slim, with curves in all the right places, and looking very elegant in a figure-hugging olive dress and mid-calf brown leather boots. She was almost as tall as me, and I’m six foot two in my stockinged feet. She also had a nice smile, sexy dimples, sea-green eyes with laugh lines crinkling their edges, high cheekbones, a smattering of freckles over her nose and forehead, and beautiful silky red hair that parted in the centre and cascaded over her shoulders. Her movements were graceful and economic.
commentary: On the whole I don’t write about books I don’t like: there seems little point.
The exceptions are:
-if a book is gloriously bad, and I think I can amuse and entertain by writing about it (eg The Babe BA by EF Benson)
-and also the author is either long-dead, or else has been so successful and made so much money that they won’t care at all what I think. (eg The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker.)
- or if I am taking the high moral ground because I dislike a book so much (eg Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life)
In this case, Peter Robinson has been tremendously successful with his DCI Banks books, and the TV series, and I’m sure he and his many many fans (who number a lot of people I respect) won’t care at all what I think of him.
But I am looking for enlightenment here. What do people like about him?
A few years ago I read one of his Banks books, A Dedicated Man. It had been written a good few years previously (1988). On the opening page a young woman wonders about her possible future as an actress. Might she end up as a Kate Winslet or a Gwyneth Paltrow, she wonders? That’s quite clever of her, because in 1988 Kate Winslet was 12/13 and hadn’t made a film yet. Gwyneth was 16 and also hadn’t yet made any films.
There is an explanation for this: someone went in and changed the text for a later reprint. The poor deleted actresses were Jessica Lange and Kathleen Turner (at least in the US edition, perhaps they were constantly changing the names). But little else was altered in the book: Inspector Banks is still jumping into his white Cortina after several pints of good Yorkshire ale and driving off round the Dales – in a way that we hope that no modern policeman would do (or at least not with the apparent approval of the author).
If I were the author or the editor of the publisher I would be embarrassed by that, I think it’s a very strange thing to do. It shows a contempt for the reader to make such a silly change, and then not follow through with the rest of the book. (That also reminded me of another book in which the changes were made in a stupid way – the sonnet incident in the Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen)
So I had had issues. But Before the Poison sounded promising: A standalone about a murder in the past. A newly-widowed man moves to a remote house in Yorkshire, and finds the previous inhabitants were a convicted (and executed) murderess and her victim, her husband. Our hero, Christopher, becomes intrigued and starts looking into the case. There are echoes of the Thompson/Bywaters case, and of the Rattenbury case. Just the kind of book I enjoy.
I should have loved it but I didn’t. None of the characters seemed real (particularly the 6-foot amazon being described above), nobody talked in a convincing way, the story was quite long and dull, and the main character’s food and music tastes were described in quite unbecoming detail.
As a crime story it was ridiculous. There seemed no evidence against the hanged woman whatsoever, just a vague remark that she was being judged for being adulterous. There was one odd sideline: a B&B landlady who had put the adulterers up. She was alleged to have been grimly pious and Biblical, and to be a blackmailer. This woman’s activities, and others’ response to them, were variously used as proof of various people’s innocence, guilt, reason someone wasn’t charged, reason there was any suspicion, non-existent, denied and not investigated at all, an attempt to throw police off the scent.
She and her actions can’t have been ALL those things – but it’s never explained. Robinson just picks up the horrible Mrs Compton and drops her when he feels like it, having used her to prove a diametrically opposite point from the last time she was mentioned, and the main character never bothers to wonder or investigate. Mrs Compton and another (completely unconnected) woman are said to have given evidence of incriminating conversations which apparently did not take place: no explanation is ever given of this surely surprising feature.
This annoying plot strand seemed typical of the whole book: it was careless (over and over again) and showed no respect for the reader.
In addition, people having dinner on New Year’s Eve 1952 are discussing Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest, which didn’t happen till 1953. The author uses inferred when he means implied, and interceding when he means intervening.
I would love someone to tell me the case for the defence…
The one aspect I did enjoy was his excerpts from a (fictional) Famous Trials book by Sir Charles Hamilton Morley. Robinson gets the style off to a T – in the olden days there was a certain portentous and quite judgemental style in which those books were written, also very reminscient of true crime reports in the Sunday Express of 40 years ago. A lot of archaisms, and ‘Who was to gainsay her?’ - it is perfectly done. As it happens, such books are mentioned in a Ngaio Marsh novel I have just been reading, and she says: ‘their style would be characterized by a certain arch taciturnity’ - perfect.
The picture is of Victoria Beckham.