Monday, 3 October 2016

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson

 
published 2011
 
 
Before the Poison
 


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.
























30 comments:

  1. Oh, GOOD GRIEF. That actress modification. Absolutely cretinous.

    This really does sound awful and pretty unreadable. I was also reading the passage and thinking "Hmm, that's not very good is it?" before realising that you were sharing it as a book you didn't like!

    I have to say that books like this are probably why I rarely find male crime fiction writers whose books I really, genuinely enjoy and are impressed by. Reginald Hill is a honourable exception, and I have enjoyed Ian Rankin's Rebus books, but not enough to retain them on my permanent bookshelf.

    I don't count Christopher Fowle's Bryant and May books, or Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series as "crime writers" - both are something quite different, much more magical (especially BA), eccentric, gloriously insane, and wondrous, with so much lovely stuff about their respective worlds. (And also both can be very, very, very funny.)

    But yeah. I have to say it, I'm MUCH more likely to reach for a crime book written by a woman, just because they usually do a better job at it.

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    1. That is SUCH an interesting theory about crime writes, going to have to think about that! There is a theory that in Golden Age syle stories, a lot of detail (dropped in, missed out, clues and murder methods) is essential, and basically women are much better at that than men.
      I love your use of the word cretinous - another commentator recently said something about 'vexatious' being under-used. I shall try to use both these words now.

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    2. Also, I do keep thinking I should read Ben Aaronovitch...

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    3. Ben Aaronovitch really is an absolutely remarkable writer. You really feel that he knows exactly what he writes about in real life, even when the elements are fantastical.

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    4. OK, sold, what should I start with?

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    5. Rivers of London - they are very much a series, so not exactly books you can dip into at random. But the series is REALLY worth it in my opinion - there aren't many contemporary writers who have me as excited about following a series as he does.

      BA is very experienced - you may know he wrote two Doctor Who scripts in the 80s and what else he has written has mainly been television scripts or popular culture related - but even that work has had a lot of merit in it, working on a literary level and not just as "pop culture" stuff. I'm very pleased that he's finally accessing a much wider audience with the Rivers books.

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    6. Done, I have downloaded it! No idea when I'll get to it, but it will happen. I see there's quite a few books by now.

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  2. I can certainly see why this one didn't appeal, Moira. And the more I think about that actress substitution, the more I'm shaking my head at it. Really? Really? At any rate, back to this book, it certainly doesn't sound like a story with well-developed characters or a solid pace. Thanks for the cherry-picking...

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    1. So very strange, and I suppose probably editor or publisher. But still. If the rest of the book had saved it that would have been fine...

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  3. Yeah I'm afraid I can't mount a defence either. The only Robinson book I read was In a Dry Season which had similar problems with being too long and dull.

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    1. I think that's the only other one of his I have read (I do like a book about a hot summer and a dried up reservoir) and that one didn't do it either...

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  4. I have a stack of him in the tubs, but I think I've only read one years back. I'm tearing up to the attic now for some more...

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    1. Well, with a bit of care*, you can read a lot of books before you get to him...
      * Actually, with no effort at all...

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  5. I'm not going to make a case for Robinson either. I've only read a couple of the Banks books and half of a different standalone. I accidentally left it in a hotel room and was never bothered enough to find another copy to see what happened. The Banks character bored me, another middle aged bloke having a mid life crisis and some fairly unmemorable storylines.

    I figure it's yet another popular "thing" I don't understand and that's ok, there are loads of authors whose popularity bemuses me.

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    1. I know, it's a mystery. Banks and the books seem to have all the tired old traits of a hundred other books, without offering any extras. But there must be something...

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  6. I agree, there must be something. I was trying to remember what I thought when I read the books I have read by Robinson, both series books. I read the first one in 2004 and the 2nd in the series sometime before 2012. I have six more on the shelves, so I must have found them readable. There are lots of series I have started, liked and not returned to, so that really means nothing. So no help either way. I was hoping someone would defend him.

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    1. So was I! You aren't reading them fast enough, he must be producing more and more as your books sit on their shelves... Will you ever be able to tell me what you think of him ? ;)

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    2. I don't know. I might be interested enough now to give him another try. On the other hand, I have a huge of list of books I want to read for various reasons... so will depend on my mood. If I read twice as many books a month, then yes I would fit him in. But I am slowing down and it is time for Christmas books...

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  7. I have a theory that if you wrote a computer programme designed to create the average TV/Book detective of the last two decades and set it to work, it would probably come up with DCI Banks. He's so dull, so uninspired. with no surprises and nothing out of the ordinary. There is a crushing sameness to a big clutch of crime fiction published in recent years. YadayadayadaGlumdetectiveyadayadaserialkilleryadayadayadagrimsetting. Why are publishers so scared of doing something out of the ordinary? Crime fiction used to be fun, with bizarre deaths and general weirdness, but it's like it's become wrong to be enjoyable.

    My crime bookshelf is roughly 50/50 male/female, and I've never really found the gender of the author to be a factor in choosing a book to read. Crime fiction seems to be a mix of 'thinkies' and 'feelies', with the actual skill in characterisation as important as logical story construction. Perhaps the ideal crime writer has a slightly androgynous skill (if you see what I mean?!)

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    1. Yes, that's a great description of what's wrong with Banks - he is very generic. And yes, I wish you couldn't see coming all the problems the latest detective have. Ability to look at both sides of the gender wall would help a lot...

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  8. Moira: Every photo I see of Ms. Beckham appears to me that she is playing a role. Not a one seems natural. She does appear to feel a responsibility to her fans to always be made up and well dressed when she is out in public.

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    1. I think she does, but then I would think she thinks that is her job! I think traditional, say, opera singers or great actresses felt like they always had to look like divas, even off-duty, because that is what the fans expect. Maybe Royalty too...

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  9. "...the main character’s food and music tastes were described in quite unbecoming detail." Yes, that seems to be a requirement now! Characterisation by numbers. Think I'll get a Ben Aaronovitch. To me, his background in popular culture is a PLUS, Daniel! (Oh, and hands off Ms Beckham, she has morphed into a talented dress designer.)

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  10. Aaronovitch is downloaded, looking forward to it, and will be intrigued to know what you think. And yes, popular culture is a plus - shows some consideration for the audience. I have just read a book by TV writer Jed Mercurio: it is so good I wonder why not Booker etc.

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  11. I read and enjoy them, I have read them since they first appeared which may have something to do with this as there is an element of attachment to the characters and slow development over many years. I have the same relationship with a number of crime writers both male and female where following the life journey of the characters becomes far more important than the plot itself (an example of this is the Ian Serrelliar novels by Susan Hill). Robinson is good at this slow gentle exploration of character (which by the way I think is totally at odds with the casting for the tv series). If I think about my continued attachment to certain writers I have to say that there is a combination of factors including a bizarre sense of loyalty in that I have been with them for so long of course I will continue to be interested in what happens to them. I have a high tolerance rate of inaccuracy or plot holes - especially in crime novels providing I am carried along with the narrative. Hope this sheds some light on why there is a continued market for his books :)

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    1. Thank you, that was very interesting, and I'm glad you came here to give some balance! I worry that if I say 'what do people like about this?' it sounds quite snarky and ironic, but I don't mean it this way, I really want to know, and you have given a great explanation. I may not be a Robinson fan, but I think I can recognize what you say in relation to other authors that I like. I most certainly understand about following the series..

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    2. I knew you weren't being snarky and were genuinely interested, can tell from following you that you have a passion for reading and interest in the reading habits of others, always enjoy your writing and have followed up by reading many authors I wouldn't previously have considered, thank you :)

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    3. Thank you for those kind words, you have made my day...

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