Barry Forshaw, in his Rough Guide to Crime Fiction said of Peter Robinson - he's one of the most reliable practitioners around,an astringent voice in the field.
The author, born in the Yorkshire he so wonderfully recreates in the Banks novels, resides for the most part in Canada but he is also a regular visitor to his home shores. The Archive cornered Peter for a question answer session.
What I especially like about the Banks novels is that the police are not infallible. In the very powerful Innocent Graves, you paint the police in places as bumbling thugs and Owen's ruin is their fault entirely and yet they never truly answer for it. In fact I literally cried for Owen and very few books have the power to induce real tears, this one did though. Is there any hidden message behind the way you depict the police? Or are the shades of grey intended to create realism?
There is a certain ruthlessness in the way any authoritarian service operates. All you have to do is look at airport security to see what happens when you give someone a uniform and too much power—they’ll even make a four year old boy take his leg braces off! I simply wanted to make it clear that the police are not necessarily in the business of apologies or explanations, unless they are caught either napping or with their fingers in the pie. They follow a theory, right or wrong, eliminate it, and move on, not overly concerned about the misery and ruin they may leave in their wake. That said, it’s a hard job, and Banks at least strives for a degree of humanitarianism, as do most of the serving officers I know. But suspicion taints everyone’s life, and the whiff of doubt never quite goes away.
In the old days it must have been easier to write detective fiction without all the hi-tech methods. These days with DNA fingerprinting it must make the crime writers job that much harder in creating a real mystery for the protagonist. How much of a problem are modern scientific crime solving methods when writing a detective novel?
For some writers they’re actually a boon. Alas, I wasn’t particularly good at science at school, which is why I leaned towards the arts, and now I find myself having to understand things like DNA and ballistics. It’s difficult, but expert help is usually available, and sometimes the science can provide an interesting diversion or a useful clue. You learn one odd fact that not many people know and use it to spring a surprise on readers. On the whole, though, I try to emphasise the human aspect and keep the forensics to a minimum.
Are there any subjects you wouldn't tackle in a crime novel?
Not that I know of, unless they were boring. I might find, though, if I started something, that I couldn’t go on—but it hasn’t happened yet.
Great news about the Banks TV adaptation. Are there plans for a series of TV movies? And I believe they are starting with Aftermath - who decided on that particular book and why?
Obviously they want to start with a bang, and Aftermath is probably the darkest book in the series. It also has a lot of real crime connections, and the whole mystery of a killer couple. I don’t know who made the decision—certainly not me. I find these things out very late in the game. Anyway, Stephen Tompkinson is thrilled about playing Banks, and I think he’ll be great in the role. They start filming in April to broadcast later this year. We all hope, of course, that this is just the beginning of a long-running series. There are plenty of books to adapt!
How much input do you have into the TV show?
None. I’d be lucky if they let me on the set. Interestingly enough, though, Stephen values the writer’s role and we’ve already had lunch and talked about Banks. I’ve also read the screenplay and think it’s excellent. There are a few changes, but that’s to be expected. TV, after all, is a different medium, and they only have two one-hour episodes in which to tell a complicated story.
When originally creating Banks did you use any other fictional detective as a blueprint? Banks for instance has (like seemingly all fictional plod) a penchant for music.
The only other fictional detectives I really knew of at the time were Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Van der Valk, Maigret and Martin Beck, so you work that one out!
Tell us a little about your latest novel?
Bad Boy is coming out in August, and much of it deals with Banks’s search for his daughter after she has disappeared with the dubious character of the title. In some ways its more of a thriller than a detective novel, though the usual cast is present, and there’s a great playlist. The publishers on both sides of the Atlantic a very excited about it, and I hope it exceeds even their expectations.
Going back to the first Bank novel - how much of his character did you have when you started writing him? And how has he changed over the series of books?
That’s the subject of a book length work! I knew very little at first, and I haven’t reread those earlier books in years. Banks has always been a work in progress and probably always will be. I’m sure that when he’s finished, I probably won’t want to write about him any more.
You live for the most part in Canada. Does writing Banks with his Yorkshire setting cure any homesickness? You make the area familiar to the reader - how important do you think the setting is to the tone of the books?
Yes, I started the series when I had been in Canada for only a short while, studying for my PhD at York University, in Toronto, and I was going through a period of nostalgia, feeling more like a tourist every time I went back. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, and it centred on the sense of place, as did my PhD dissertation. Writing the series was a way of keeping grip, staying in touch. I think that sense of homesickness permeates the earlier books especially and gives them an unusual perspective. Someone who lives there all the time probably wouldn’t dwell on describing the landscape in such living detail; they would be more likely to take it for granted and get on with the story! The setting has always been important to me, and now I spend a bit more time back in Yorkshire, I’m finding more real places making their mark, but I still try to render the landscape in some detail. I haven’t really cut back on the descriptive elements, just linked them more to real places. The area I write about has always been real to me, and I still continue to “move” places I visit and like into Swainsdale.
For years your work has been highly regarded but you don't seem to have scaled the heights of say Ian Rankin in public awareness, (personally I prefer Banks to Rebus) but all that may change now with the TV series and a run of excellent novels. Do you see yourself continuing Banks for many years? Are you planning on doing a Conan Doyle and tossing him over a waterfall?
I don’t think I’m finished with Banks yet. There are definite post Bad Boy issues to address. But I am working on a standalone at the moment, then I’ll go back to Banks. I suppose TV may increase public awareness. It would certainly be nice if more people knew about my books so that they could at least try them and see if they liked them. Hodder do a great job with promotion—tours, posters, bookshop promotions, newspaper and TV ads, the lot. I just don’t seem to get much media coverage in the UK, so you don’t see my face on the telly, or reviews of my books in the quality papers. They seem to ignore me completely. It’s partly the stigma of being a genre writer, of course, that literary snobbishness, but perhaps there’s a bit more to it than that. After all, other crime writers seem to get plenty of exposure. It’s probably my own fault in some ways because I am rather retiring, believe it or not, and would far rather sit at home and write than sit in a TV studio and pontificate about writing.
Recently I bought a Banks novel for £1 in ASDA. Does the author make anything from these amazing deals? Surely these offers can not be beneficial to the industry. Do you, as author, have any control over these crazy supermarket deals?
No, of course not. This side of the business is completely beyond me. They might as well give them away in every packet of Cornflakes as sell them for £1. And then there’s the whole issue of electronic books and the Google “settlement” but we won’t even go there. It’s becoming a much more complicated world for publishers, and sometimes they have to cut difficult deals to remain competitive. I suppose it’s better to be on sale for £1 at ASDA than not to be on sale at all.
Peter's website HERE