This is the most recent – 2012 – in a long series of British police procedurals featuring Detective Chief Inspector Banks and set in the fictional town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. I’ve read a number of others in the series over the years, and have found them competent and readable. But what drew me back to this one was seeing the first two 90 minute episodes of the TV series DCI Banks, which were based on two of the earlier books. I wanted to refresh my view of Banks and see if it fitted with the TV version.
Inspector Bill Quinn is on sick leave when he is killed in what looks like a professional hit. Could it be related to the case he was working on, which involved surveillance of a shady money lender who might have had links to people trafficking? Or could it be connected to the case of a missing girl which had haunted him for years? And Professional Standards would like to know why compromising pictures of Quinn and a young girl were found in his room, though everyone knew that he was devoted to his recently dead wife. Then there’s the personal side of things. Inspector Annie Cabbot, Bank’s long term off-sider, is just back from sick leave herself, after getting over injuries sustained in the previous book. Is she up to the hard grind of a murder inquiry? And how will the attractive but cold Inspector Joanna Passero from Professional Standards fit into the investigation?
This is all fairly standard stuff. Banks is a likeable enough character, in something of the same mould as Ian Rankin’s Rebus: divorced, a loner, but without the aggression. He doesn’t always go by the book, and thinks most detectives ‘didn’t know the right questions to ask’. Like Rebus, he sees connections that others miss. Robinson humanises him partly through his musical tastes; here he finds himself starting to like Mahler’s symphonies. ‘Was this something that happened when you got older? Failing eyesight, mysterious aches and pains, enjoying Mahler? Would Wagner be next?’ Coming in at the end of the series, a reader might miss the depth of the rapport between Banks and Cabbot, who have had an on-again off-again relationship in earlier books. The investigation itself relies rather too much on what people are conveniently prepared to tell the detectives, and I think some of the earlier stories were stronger. But there is some good social realism in the people trafficking element of the story. It’s no surprise that the endorsements on the covers of most of Robinson’s books are from Ian Rankin and Michael Connolly.
So how does this sort of character, and this sort of book, come out on TV? Banks is played by Stephen Tompkinson, a fairly common face on British TV, who has played both comedy and drama (and was a police constable in Minder, for those who remember). He plays Banks as rather tougher and more conflicted than I had pictured him. I sometimes find the TV characterisation adds to the one in the book, as with Alec Guinness and George Smiley, or George Baker and Reg Wexford. I don’t feel that here; the kind and compassionate side of Banks isn’t really developed in what I’ve seen of this series. Annie Cabbot, however, is a pleasure; she is played by Andrea Lowe with rather more cheekiness and verve than I remember from the books. Not surprisingly, the stories themselves are made more dramatic than they seem in the books, where the careful accumulation of evidence is important in building tension. On TV, the spectacle is more important, so there the more vivid events like fires or car chases get a lot of air time. The violence is also emphasised more than in the books, simply by being visual. Reading about a burnt body is quite different from seeing one close up. I also find that with TV, any ambiguities or weaknesses in the plot can be glossed over by concentration on the action. It’s only afterwards that you wonder, for example, just how Banks knew where he had to go in order to save Annie from her headstrong pursuit of the baddie in Playing With Fire.
Overall, I certainly enjoyed the two programs I’ve seen, and went to bed after them feeling more disturbed than I had reading the books. I’ll certainly watch any further episodes. But if I had to choose between TV and book, I’d choose the book every time.
You can read more about Peter Robinson and DCI Banks here.