Playing with Fire by Peter Robinson

A shotgun blast of northern realism
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What is it about God's Own County? Why does Yorkshire have such an alarming fictional crime rate, and why does it appeal in particular to writers of police procedurals?

Peter Robinson was born and bred in Leeds but now lives in Canada, which gives an unusual perspective to his long-running Inspector Banks series. Not that distance lends enchantment - there is nothing nostalgic about Robinson's view of contemporary Yorkshire. His settings are sharply realistic, and perhaps the sharpness has something to do with the distance between the observer and observed.

Playing With Fire is the 14th novel in the series. Banks is stationed in a fictional town modelled on Richmond. He and his team investigate a fire which has destroyed two semi-derelict barges and brought about the deaths of two squatters, one a struggling artist, the other a teenage junkie. When accelerant is found on the scene it become clear this is a case of arson and murder.

Suspects are soon tumbling out of the charred woodwork. The first person on the scene is a neighbour, an obsessive loner and probable Peeping Tom. The junkie's stepfather is a sinister GP with a downtrodden wife, and her cheating boyfriend has a history of violence. The artist has a wealth of dodgy associates. Soon, a lonely caravan goes up in flames, with a third victim inside. Meanwhile, subplots multiply and red herrings breed.

Gradually the outlines of motives emerge: a lucrative scam gone wrong and the darkest of family secrets. There are few surprises; instead, suspicions develop into probabilities, and evolve into certainties which may or may not stand up in court. Banks and his colleagues get results by gathering and analysing information, not by intellectual gymnastics or flashes of intuition. One major villain escapes (another realistic touch), though perhaps Robinson plans to bring the character back.

The genre inevitably imposes artificial conventions, but Robinson's plot rests on solid factual foundations. He has done his research into police procedures and forensic science. The descriptions of fire victims, and of a person receiving a shotgun blast at close range, have a gruesome authenticity.

Banks is the sort of fictional police officer we have grown to know and love. He has a well-deserved reputation for grumpiness, a failed marriage, a complicated romantic life which overlaps with his professional responsibilities, an eclectic music collection, and a taste for Islay single malts which nearly proves fatal.

Robinson brings a welcome injection of reality to police investigation in his fictional Yorkshire, if not the genre. God's Own County tastes all the better with a dash of Canadian bitters.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'The American Boy' (Flamingo)

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