Whither the Great Detectives?
I'm not sure if the title of the panel actually included the word "whither," but it should have. It was starchy enough. It was an online discussion of whatever happened to all those brainiacs known as the Great Detectives of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
I was asked to participate because I hate the so-called Golden Age. All panels need dissenters.
All this preamble is by way of saying that I actually learned quite a bit from the panel. And now I've read a novel that puts the whole Golden Age discussion into perspective.
Forty years ago, Peter Robinson's Chief Inspector Alan Banks would have been a Great Detective. He probably would have said "Zounds!" and leapt to Sherlockian conclusions every time he was presented with tiny, arcane bits of evidence. He would have had no life whatever outside the plot. He would have been permitted one eccentricity (I have always wanted one of those guys to experience flatulence every time he was in the presence of royalty), and he would doubtless have had a servant or two of "foreign" birth to assist him in his criminological travails. As I said, the Golden Age ain't exactly my spot of tea.
But fortunately, it isn't 40 years ago. And, also fortunately, Peter Robinson is determined to stretch the limits of the mystery form so that it becomes serious without becoming Serious, if you know what I mean. This is what became, thank God, of the Great Detective.
This very British crime novel looks in some depth at 1) the dynamics of a bad marriage, 2) the aching grief of a father and son who can no longer communicate, 3) the daily despondence one feels working for a boss who loathes you. The mystery itself deals with the discovery of a corpse that has been hidden away for several decades. Our Inspector Banks investigates. The clueing is as fecund as Christie and the writing graceful and evocative. The twists are done especially well; and the ending, with Banks learning that time is not linear but circular, has a quiet power that will remain with you long after you've forgotten some of the noisier novels of recent note.
In a Dry Season is also, if this sort of thing interests you, a very enlightening look at modern detection. While a number of novelists use police technology as their theme, Banks is one of the few writers who is able to show us how all the various processes apply to an actual case. Unlike a Great Detective, Banks shows us how a person might really go about trying to piece together a case, particularly one that is nearly 50 years old. It is not only a fine novel of character, it is also an excellent detective story.
Robinson is the real thing -- storyteller and stylist, very much in the Simenon mold, but with a melancholy eye and wan humor all his own. In a Dry Season is a very good novel indeed.--Ed Gorman