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gallows view

4 june 2013

Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks series is another that I've started decades late, don't expect to live to finish, and am now kicking myself that I missed at its inception. Or rather, I liked its initial entry, Gallows View, very much, when I finally caught up to it 26 years after publication. For all I know the series jumps the shark in the very next volume – and Gallows View is not without some surface cracks, though they may have developed with age.

I'll try to treat the novel here as a singular entity, then, because I have no idea what way the series has gone in the years since; if you're a Peter Robinson fan – well, if you're a Peter Robinson fan, go read something else, because you're going to find this review tentative and ignorant :)

The flaws in Gallows View are inseparable from its strengths. The Yorkshire town of Eastvale has been afflicted with a crime wave. There are burglars loose, there's a Peeping Tom, and there's been a murder. Are the crimes related? Is there just one perpetrator? Inspector Alan Banks doesn't know, so he enlists the help of hot single psychologist Jenny Fuller. Banks, a tough but intellectual cop, finds himself attracted to Fuller even though he's happily married to the beautiful Sandra, mother of his two adorable kids. And his office is assailed by charges of anti-feminism, because they don't seem to be able to catch the crooks who have spied on women, thieved from women, and killed an old woman.

Banks feels a ton of male guilt, even though he's a perfectly cromulent anti-sexist. Though he makes every effort to sympathize with the various women in his personal and professional lives, he perceives a gulf between him and the ewige weiblich. Sex – and its concomitants sexuality, sexism, and sex difference – drive the crimes in Gallows View; in a sexless world, none of its mayhem would happen. Well, maybe the petty theft.

In turns of events that I won't explain too fully for fear of spoilers, both of the women that Banks is attracted to – Sandra and Jenny – become victims of crime in turn, and form a bond over their ordeals. Banks is psychologically isolated from them both not just because he's a cop and they're the public, but because they've become prey in ways he's immune to. And as the crimes escalate, so does his sense of guilt.

Robinson's narrative method in Gallows View shifts quickly, in brief chapter after brief chapter, among detectives, perpetrators, witnesses, and victims. The petty thieves who turn brutal are among the best-drawn characters in the book; the well-concealed murderer is not wholly believable as to actions or motives.

In a sense, Gallows View shares elements with the English "cosy" mystery. We're in a relatively small town, a limited circle of suspects, stock types from the strata of the English class system. But in other ways, the novel is sickeningly brutal – not in the nonstop, over-the-top way of James Ellroy or Ken Bruen, but in ways that are all the nastier for proceeding organically out of small-town life, with its hobby clubs and its standard outings and its shabby, stolid institutions. Police procedurals work best, as here, when evil interrupts a world designed to keep it fenced out.

Robinson, Peter. Gallows View. 1987. London: Pan [Macmillan], 2007.