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Powells.com
Saturday, May 8th, 2004


 

Playing with Fire: A Novel of Suspense

by Peter Robinson

A review by Georgie Lewis

For fans of the British police procedural, two great new novels from UK mystery writers are here to fill in the gap left after last fall's bumper crop from Reginald Hill, P. D. James, Val McDermid, and Ruth Rendell.

With over ten books each and numerous awards under their belts, both Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin write novels that feature a recurring police inspector possessed of an independent streak, strong empathy, and a dogged need to unearth the truth. Robinson is not as well known in the US as Rankin (in fact, not all of his backlist has been released here yet) but if you are a reader who has appreciated the melancholy tones and complex relationships that frequently define Rankin's Inspector John Rebus novels, then you'd be well advised to introduce Robinson's Inspector Alan Banks mysteries to your bookshelves.

Before meeting Banks in Playing with Fire, one should understand that this is a man whose first marriage is long gone, and whose former relationship with colleague Annie Cabbot adds an awkwardness, sadness, and frisson of jealousy to their day-to-day dealings. In Playing with Fire Annie, who ended their relationship, starts seeing another man someone Banks tries reluctantly to like. Banks is torn between the objectivity required by his job and trusting his instincts, somewhat tarnished as they are by his and Annie's affair. But before you start seeing Harlequin romances before your eyes, this is only one of many subplots in an engrossing story that starts with the investigation of arson and reveals layer after layer of twisted relationships, family intrigue, drugs, and more. Brilliantly plotted and paced, Playing with Fire is sure to send you racing for more Robinson.

Ian Rankin has been gathering a higher and higher profile on this side of the pond, which is not surprising considering he is the best selling mystery writer in the UK. Like Robinson's Banks, Rebus has Scotch-induced hangovers, a disheveled home life, and a haunted past that can keep him from sleep.

Rankin is highly skilled and fluent at his craft and while I believe his latest novel, A Question of Blood, leaves many police procedurals in the dust there is still a part of me that is not completely satisfied with it. Perhaps his prolificacy is taking a toll, although he certainly hasn't left any questions unanswered and the plot is satisfyingly complex. Perhaps it is just a matter of The Falls and the 2003 Edgar award-winning Resurrection Men being so extremely good that this one pales in comparison. Or perhaps it is the fact that, one month after reading it, I needed a friend to remind me whodunnit.

Always on the outs with his superior officers (Resurrection Men commences with Rebus being sent to police reform school for his impertinent behavior), in A Question of Blood Rebus falls under a cloud of suspicion when the death by fire of a known criminal coincides with Rebus's newly scorched hands. While the motives for Rebus to harm this man lie in his loyalty to his partner Siobhan, neither the reader nor Siobhan know whether to believe him when he says he had nothing to do with the crime. Added to this intrigue is a shooting and suicide at a boys' private school, which initially looks like a cut-and-dry case. If that's true, why are there military detectives sniffing around the case, and why is the only surviving victim reluctant to speak?

My vague quibbling aside, A Question of Blood is tautly paced and keeps the reader guessing. I have no doubt that anyone introduced to the Rebus series at this point would be unaware of any shortfall. Perhaps, finally, Ian Rankin only has himself to blame, for setting the bar so exceedingly high.


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