Kindred Sleuths


At first glance, Christobel Kent’s The Killing Room and Peter Robinson’s In the Dark Places have as much in common as linguine and Yorkshire pudding. One is set in Florence, after all, the other in the north of England. There is also an age, or at least longevity, difference. The Killing Room is only the fifth novel in Kent’s Detective Sandro Cellini series while Robinson’s Inspector Alan Banks is on his twenty-second outing. Yet either detective, catching sight of the other across a crowded field of macho heroes and plucky heroines, would surely tip his hat in ironical salute. Banks, with his weary prediction that “Everyone slips up sometime,” recognising Cellini, the “superannuated old-school detective with rounded shoulders” who observes of springtime “The days were getting longer, and he was too old to enjoy it.” Banks’s Yorkshire fatalism is predictable; there’s all that rain for a start. But who would have guessed that when it comes to gloom an Italian protagonist could give the Scandinavians a run for their money? And Cellini is hardly an aberration. Like Aurelio Zen, the reluctant hero of Michael Dibdin’s peerless series, or Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti — both of them Venetians — this Florentine ex-cop has few illusions left, about himself or his beloved city. “Centuries of iron will, taste, ruthlessness and money,” he observes of the Via Santo Spirito, “these palaces opened their doors only to their own: their shutters were closed, their gardens were hidden.”

Kent’s novel opens in such a fortress, the Palazzo San Giorgio, at a party to celebrate its transformation into a luxury apartment complex. Sandro’s wife, Luisa, who works in an exclusive clothing store, has been invited by the Palazzo’s director while Sandro has been dragged there because Luisa hopes he may be offered a job in security. “[T]he evening felt like a net drawing tighter around him in the dark,” he broods, “all these wealthy people in their satin-lapelled dinner suits and their jewels nothing more than shiny fish.” Kent’s sly and nimble description of the event – she can capture a character in a gesture, a word – sets the tone for a murder mystery that unspools as smoothly as a bolt of silk. It begins, of course, with a body. “The man was naked…His head was down between his knees, his hands were palms uppermost and he was dead.” Beneath the stench and stain of death, violence reverberates and soon Sandro is tracking a killer. Delicately, for the corpse was once what Sandro has just become: head of security at the Palazzo. The murderer it appears, must be one of the pampered residents. As he penetrates their lives and secrets — “His job…to follow the trail, find the end of the fuse, stamp on the embers” — Sandro might have become just another sleuth in a country house mystery. Particularly when the death count rises. But The Killing Room is as much a novel of manners as of murder. Kent’s portrait of Florentine society is so deft and her psychological insights so acute that the plot, although clever, is almost beside the point. And once again the city that Kent conjures up, with its velvet hills and “…blue-grey dusk,” dwarfs any modern intrigue.

That sense of place is equally palpable in Peter Robinson’s latest novel. Indeed, one police officer’s life depends on knowing the lie of the Yorkshire land. “She could follow the heights of the various mountains from the way the contour lines grew closer.” Studying a map of the moors, DC Winsome “traced the dotted lines of footpaths that seemed to disappear in the middle of nowhere, spotted ancient stone circles, deep gullies, old riverbeds, abandoned lead mines and slate quarries.” Within hours Winsome is inside one of those mountains, in a cave, hiding from a killer. This climactic chase is, however, the one touch of melodrama in an otherwise plain and plainly told tale.

“A bloody stolen tractor,” Detective Inspector Annie Cabot complains at the outset, “…Is this Homicide and Major Crimes?” To which her colleague replies, “…rural crime is major crime. At least according to the new police commissioner.” Politics and policing have repeatedly chafed each other in Robinson’s novels and he has always excelled at skewering oily bureaucrats. But In the Dark Places has a tighter focus. Its drama, set in motion by a stolen tractor and an old bloodstain, is the drama of ordinary, cramped lives. Alex Preston, for example, whose boyfriend, Michael Lane, has disappeared, knows that to the investigating officers she is just another “… woman in a council flat, with an illegitimate child and a conviction for shoplifting.” Lane’s father, a sheep farmer, is similarly blunt with DI Annie Cabot. “Gentleman farmer. Hobbyist,” he sneers, describing the neighbour whose tractor is missing, “Got a chip on his shoulder about it, too. Thinks we look down on him. Mebbe we do. I were raised to it. This farm was my father’s, and his father’s before him.”

After twenty-one cases, Inspector Alan Banks has equal claim to the bleak terrain that Robinson so starkly evokes. Here crime is squalid and killing – of man or beast – is a brutal, untidy business. “Compile the evidence, get the forensics right on Atherton’s farmhouse and private abattoir,” Banks sighs when the case is closed, “He was tired…Time to go down to the fax machine, then home for some microwaved chicken tikka masala…” All the drudgery and fatigue of police work, which Robinson persistently conveys even as he ratchets up the tension in a satisfying plot, is contained in the mundane prospect of a reheated dinner. Never mind the opera CDs, the single malt scotch and the beautiful (but absent) girlfriend. Banks will never make a convincingly romantic detective; he is too old and too real. He too would sense danger ahead when Sandro Cellini, in The Killing Room, tells his wife that he loves her. “Saying I love you was not normal for them,” Luisa worries, “It was not required: it was not welcome.”