Fresh Meat: Watching the Dark by Peter Robinson

Watching the Dark is the 20th novel in the DCI Alan Banks series by Peter Robinson (available January 8, 2013).

When Detective Inspector Bill Quinn is found murdered in the tranquil grounds of the St. Peter’s Police Treatment Centre, and compromising photographs are discovered in his room, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is well aware that he must handle the highly sensitive—and dangerously explosive—investigation with the utmost discretion. Because the case may involve police corruption, an officer from Professional Standards, Inspector Joanna Passero, is assigned to work with Banks. But the relationship is far from smooth, and Banks soon finds himself and his methods under uncomfortable scrutiny.

Banks discovers that Quinn’s murder may be linked to a cold case involving a young English girl named Rachel Hewitt who disappeared in Tallinn, Estonia, six years earlier. A seasoned detective who follows the evidence and his own instincts, Banks is sure that finding the truth about Rachel will lead to Quinn’s killer. Following elusive leads in the dark, cobbled alleys of Tallinn’s Old Town, it soon becomes clear that someone doesn’t want the past stirred up.

Back in Eastvale, DI Annie Cabbot, follows clues that lead her into the heart of a migrant labor scam involving corrupt bureaucrats and a loan shark who feeds on the poor. As the evidence beings to mount in both Tallinn and Eastvale, it soon becomes clear that the crimes are linked in more ways than Banks imagined, and that solving them may put even more lives in jeopardy, including his own.

Watching the Dark is the first novel I’ve read by Peter Robinson. Set in in a fictional town in contemporary Yorkshire and in Estonia, it’s a meaty police procedural focusing on the difficulties and ambiguities of police work in a way I’ve rarely seen. It has the added level of being about a murdered policeman, with potential links to an old case from his past—but which one? Instead of being a tidy puzzle with only so many pieces, that a reader might easily put together if she pays enough attention along the way, the mystery has all the false trails, unclear motives, and tangled histories of real life. 

Banks, the investigator, has been appearing in mystery novels since 1987’s Gallows View, and the U.K. TV series DCI Banks based on Robinson’s characters will air on public television in 2013. Fans of the series will know Banks well. What I found appealing about him was his steady, matter-of-fact approach to his work, which for me brought a level of reality to the story. I felt the case was in the hands of a veteran policeman, and I was willing to follow the case in whatever direction Banks took me.

The police begin their work on ground familiar to us from police procedural novels and television shows, establishing a level of confidence in their approach.


“None yet. His pockets had been emptied, and his mobile is missing. We’re tracking down the provider, then at least we’ll have a list of calls to and from. The CSIs are working on the usual—footprints, fabrics, DNA, fingerprints. The area near the tree where they think the killer stood looks promising.”

As Banks begins to dig into Quinn’s past, he discovers several potential lines of investigation that might tie in to Quinn’s murder. However, at first it’s truly unclear which of these old cases might be relevant; or even if any of them are relevant. I was drawn along because the clues and the mysteries associated with them never stopped arriving.

“… It was Bill helped put away Harry Lake nearly twenty years ago….”

Banks whistled between his teeth. Harry Lake was famous enough to have had books written about him. He had abducted, tortured and killed four women in the Bradford area in the early nineties, cut them up and boiled the parts. Like the even more infamous Dennis Nilsen, he was only caught when the body pieces he’d flushed down the toilet blocked the drains, and a human hand surfaced in one of his neighbors’ toilet bowls.

…“The Rachel Hewitt business.”

“Rachel Hewitt? Isn’t she that girl whose parents keep cropping up in the news, the girl who disappeared in Latvia, or wherever?”

“…Dozens of petty villains, domestic killings. What you’d expect from a long career in detective work. He’s put away burglars, murderers, muggers, embezzlers, gangsters and hard men. None of them stand out much except for Harry Lake, and maybe Steve Lambert, that big property developer, the one who paid someone to murder his wife about three years ago.”

“I remember that one,” said Banks. “Didn’t he claim someone broke in, and she was stabbed while interrupting a robbery?”

“That’s right. Appeared to have a watertight alibi, too. The usual citizens above suspicion. But Bill stuck at it, followed the money trail, found the bloke he’d hired, along with a strong forensic connection to the scene. It was a solid case in the end, and Lambert went down swearing revenge.”

The mystery grows ever more complex as the novel progresses, and makes an absorbing read.  If you like dense, complex police procedurals, Robinson is an author you might want to check out.

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Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories.  Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at

Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.

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