Book Review: Standing in the Shadows by Peter Robinson
By Janet WebbApril 24, 2023
If you are a first-time reader of Peter Robinson’s DCI Alan Banks criminal procedurals, you might be forgiven for thinking that a connection between an unsolved murder in 1980 and the discovery of a body in 2019 will be made through diligent police investigation. Yes, but, because music and memories underscore the plot of every DCI Banks mystery.
28 November 1980. Nicholas “Nick” Hartley is an English major at Leeds University in 1980. He is still in love with fellow student Alice Poole who broke up with him after two years because she thought he was a political dilettante, insufficiently committed to the causes she held dear. Nick has no use for Mark Woodcroft, her new older boyfriend. One day the police show up, asking after Alice—referring to her in the past tense, Nick notices. He tells them he saw her the night before, leaving the building. A few days later Alice’s body is found; she’s been murdered. The police treat Nick as the prime suspect even though Mark has gone a cropper. Nick is sure Mark killed Alice, but the police don’t care to hear his theories. Leeds is undergoing troubling times, what with the Yorkshire Ripper on the loose and continuous political demonstrations that are on the brink of morphing into lethal unrest. The cops begrudgingly clear Nick’s name, but they’re inexplicably loath to pursue further investigations. Nick finds comfort in his academic work, music, plus what weed and alcohol he can afford. After he graduates, building from a humble entry level job at a regional newspaper, Nick “embarks on a career in investigative journalism” although finding Alice’s murderer is the subtext of his life.
N.B., in the early 1970s, Peter Robinson “studied English literature at the University of Leeds, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts with honours,” so the accuracy with which Nick’s life is portrayed is no accident.
24 November 2019. English law demands that archeologists be given first crack at ground that is designated for commercial use. Digging at a “quiet, deserted area” of a farm sold to developers, archeologist Grace Hutchinson uncovers not a Roman bead or shard of pottery but a contemporary corpse. She calls in her discovery and Banks meets her at the remote site: “There was no immediate access to or from the motorway, but it wouldn’t have been too difficult for whoever had dumped the body to do so from the lane where Banks was standing.” The area is covered with gnarled, twisted trees.
Most still had a few leaves left clinging to their branches and twigs. Banks thought they seemed creepy in the louring twilight and half expected one of them to start moving like the Ents in Lord of the Rings.
The coroner establishes that death came through the aegis of some hard blows to the skull. After the turbulence of the past few years, which culminated in the events of Not Dark Yet, Banks welcomes an outwardly straightforward investigation. In his off hours, he’s diligently working his way through the LP collection left to him by his friend Ray Cabbot.
There were some duplicates, of course, but he would sort that out later. Nobody needed two copies of Trout Mask Replica or the Fugs’ Golden Filth. He was, however, grateful for Gong and the 13th Floor Elevators, missing from his collection for too long. To be fair to Ray, though, it wasn’t all sixties rock, psychedelia and prog; there were a few jazz LPs, from Bechet to Bird.
The police do a stellar job of identifying the corpse. They discover that the dead man was a fit 50/60-something with a penchant for high-end threads. He was buried in a Tom Ford suit (think Daniel Craig in his first Bond films) and bespoke leather shoes. They release a sketch to the media, but no one steps up to identify the missing man.
DC Gerry Masterson and DS Winsome Jackman interview Harold Gillespie, the farmer who “used to own Wilveston Farm, Eastvale,” (Eastvale is a fictional Yorkshire town) where the body was discovered. It’s a pro forma conversation but it later emerges that Gillespie was a former policeman who retired at a high rank. He did not share this during the interview. Can it be a coincidence? Banks thinks not, particularly after he speaks with Dirty Dick Burgess. The well-connected Burgess proves helpful in digging into dark corners where access is limited. Burgess says his current work is “nothing very interesting,” but it dovetails with inquiries Banks is trying to pursue.
“At the moment, I’m up to my neck in this inquiry into undercover policing. You know, the SDS, as it was at first—Special Demonstration Squad—and they weren’t demonstrating washing-up liquid.”
“Weren’t they disbanded?”
“That’s right. 2008. ‘Lost their moral compass,’ according to one of them. As if they ever had one.”
If Gillespie didn’t exactly retire under a cloud, there were rumors clinging to him from early in his career when he was privy to an undercover operation where police infiltrated radical student organizations. Armed with this knowledge, Banks senses there may be a connection between the moribund inquiry into Alice Poole’s death, and the body found in Gillespie’s field.
Even after a confession that wraps up all the loose ends, Banks can’t leave well enough alone. “They had a solid case, motive, means, confession, so what was wrong?” From Banks’s perspective, it’s all too tidy. Readers well know that Banks’s passion for justice and fairness impels him to keep poking away.
Sadly, Peter Robinson died on October 4th, 2022. His unique voice will be missed by his many fans including Stephen King who called this mystery series, “the best now on the market.” If Standing in the Shadows is your first DCI Banks mystery, you can take solace in reading the twenty-seven police procedurals that come before Standing in the Shadows.
I wondered if Mr Robinson had presentiment a of his death and if he’s already had some mini strokes.There was an uncharacteristic listlessness and occasional bad taste and this was not unfortunately a good good ye.
Thank you for providing such valuable information that is often hard to find.
According to English legislation, commercially zoned land must be offered to archeologists first. When archaeologist Grace Hutchinson digs in a “quiet, deserted area” of a property sold to developers, she discovers a modern body rather than a Roman bead or fragment of pottery.
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