Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson

March 16, 2008 at 9:13 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

In his essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” W.H. Auden asserts the following with regard to the ideal setting for a murder mystery: “Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder…The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.”

(Auden begins this essay, which he wrote in 1946, with a “confession,” to wit: “For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” Oh, Wystan Hugh, How do I love thee; let me count the ways…but alas, I’ll have to count them in another blog post!)

The shocking, even revolting crime scene is a frequent feature in the work of P.D. James. In an interview that appeared in Salon Magazine several years ago, Baroness James cites the Auden essay and adds that she relies on the horror of the murder scene to bring out “…the contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it.”

devil.jpg Friend of the Devil begins with a murder scene that I won’t soon forget:

“She might have been staring out to sea, at the blurred line where the gray water meets the gray sky. The same salt wind that rushed the waves to shore lifted a lock of her dry hair and let it fall against her cheek. But she felt nothing; she just sat there, her expressionless face pale and puffy, clouded black eyes wide open.” Soon we discover more about the woman who sits motionless at the edge of the cliff. As the novel proceeds, however, we find ourselves further from the truth instead of closer to it. DI Annie Cabot, temporarily seconded to Eastern Area Headquarters, is an indefatigable investigator, but this crime tests her resources as never before. And it doesn’t help that her personal life is in crisis. For one thing, she’s skating close to the edge where drinking is concerned; incipient alcoholism is partly to blame for a shocking lapse of judgment that she seems to be paying for over and over again.

Annie’s opposite number in Western Area is Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Banks and Annie used to be lovers. The affair has cooled, but they remain friends, at least, on the surface. Meanwhile, Banks is pursuing a murder inquiry that has him equally baffled. An attractive college student has been murdered, and pressure is on the police to find the perpetrator. Banks is able to rule out many suspects until the pool becomes very narrow, but it’s a grueling slog and takes a lot out of him. Fortunately, he can always be consoled and strengthened by his love of music. One of the endearing things about this series, and this character in particular, is that Robinson is always very specific about which music Banks selects in any given situation. He understands how powerfully music can summon a state of mind, evoke vivid recollections – or console the distraught listener.

Eastern Area, Annie Cabot temporary berth, covers Yorkshire’s picturesque coastal area, including Robin Hood’s Bay, and the towns of Scarborough and Whitby. We were in Whitby this fall, and it was a deeply moving experience. The ruins of Whitby Abbey stand starkly upon a headland looking out to sea. dscn0409.jpg p1010030.jpg This is the place where, in 664 AD, the Synod of Whitby convened. Its members resolved to align their Christian practice with Rome rather than with the Irish church. This crucial decision altered the course of Christianity in England and in so doing, profoundly affected the history of the island nation.

dscn0418.jpg [ The town of Whitby, with the Abbey ruins looming above in the distance]

p1010034.jpg p1010028.jpg [ Hard by the Abbey is St. Mary’s church, with its curious box pews]

I’ve had the pleasure of following the Alan Banks series from its beginning, starting with 1987 publication of Gallows View. gallows.jpg robinson.jpg Since that time, Peter Robinson has gone from strength strength. His plotting ever more cunning, his characters subtly delineated, his dialog natural and unforced. Friend of the Devil is the seventeenth book in the series and possibly the best yet.


  1. An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Peter Robinson (Alan Banks) […]

  2. October Is Mystery Month! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] my inexpressible delight, Peter Robinson will be at Bouchercon! His latest Alan Banks novel, All the Colours of Darkness, will not be out […]

  3. “Down in the Hole” (song by Tom Waits): Authors discuss their love of The Wire and Homicide « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] One of our greatest satisfactions as librarians (library associate, in my case) was watching this writer go from strength to strength and urging his books on eager readers. (Here’s my review of Friend of the Devil.) […]

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