PETER ROBINSON is the author of seven novels, all published by Viking Penguin: Gallows View (1987); A Dedicated Man (1988); A Necessary End (1989); The Hanging Valley (1989); Caedmon's Song (1990); Past Reason Hated (1991), and Wednesday's Child (1992). He emigrated to Canada from England in 1974, studied for his M.A. at the University of Windsor, and subsequently did his Ph.D. at York University. He spoke with Anne Denoon in Toronto.
BiC: You wrote your dissertation on 20th-century British poets. When you started out in fiction, why did you choose the crime genre?
Robinson: I think at the time I'd just begun reading crime fiction. I started with Simenon, with Maigret. Before that, I'd really only read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was Much Younger, and the children's books by Enid Blyton, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. I'd also read Raymond Chandler, I thought, these guys can write really well. I also read other crime fiction, like Agatha Christie, and a lot of it I didn't like. I thought, Hell, I can do at least as well as this, if not better.
BiC: Then it was more of an aesthetic decision than a commercial one -- or a bit of both?
Robinson: Well, I hadn't a clue whether I'd sell anything. I wrote three novels that I still have on a shelf somewhere that didn't sell and I don't think Would be worth selling now. No, it wasn't really a commercial decision, because I didn't really expect to be published. I was kind of stunned when Penguin said "We'd like to Publish this."
BiC: So Gallows View, your first published novel, was actually the fourth one you wrote?
Robinson: The fifth. While I was waiting for Penguin's decision on A Dedicated Man I wrote Gallows View, and after about six months I said, "I have another novel that might help you make Lip your mind." They read it and gave me a contract for the two of them, hut they wanted to Publish Gallows View first because it would make a more sensational debut. It had more sex and violence in it. A Dedicated Man is a very quiet, pastoral, English-country-village murder mystery, which I love. But it's the only one I've done that's like that.
BiC: You mentioned Simenon and Chandler. Their work is quite different from yours. Would you consider them influences?
Robinson: Not stylistically, but certainly Maigret, as a detective, is an influence on Banks as a detective. They're very different, of course, in terms of nationality and age but they are similar in their interest in people, their psychological insight, and their compassion.
BiC: It's often said that the crime novel is the List bastion of the narrative in 20th-century fiction. Is that another reason why the form appealed to you!
Robinson: Yes, because I like a good story well told. I like to get interested in characters and to care about them; I like a plot to carry me along; I like to absorb myself in reasonably realistic creations and events that are at least believable. Crime fiction certainly does all that. Somebody said quite recently that the detective novel is probably the closest thing we have to a continuation of the 19th-century-novel tradition. I've been reading, a lot of Trollope lately, and of course I'm not saying he wrote detective novels, but there's often some nefarious deed at the heart of his books, and You have characters reacting to that, trying to deal with it, suffering from it.
BiC: You write police procedurals, which unlike some other mystery genres require a certain amount of research. How did you get your knowledge of police matters.'
Robinson: I knew nothing to start with; I basically stole from other detective writers, and most of them got it wrong, so its no wonder I did. Ruth Rendell once said the way to do police procedure when you know nothing about it is to fudge the background. You have your detective going around talking to people, and the interest is in character and dialogue, and then just give a sense in the background of all this other stuff going on... "house-to-house enquiries are being done; Forensics will he through with their report in a minute," and so on. But if you actually think about it in real terms, the timing in crime fiction is just impossible. There's no way you'd get a postmortem report as quickly as You get it in a book, or that house-to- house enquiries would give you a lead that quickly. So we know we're dealing with fiction. But since then, I've read more about it, and I've also met people in the business who are willing to share their expertise. I find that I do more research now than I used to.
BiC: The American writer Rex Bums has said that the police procedural is by definition a "novel of manners" because "it takes place on the edge of social conflict."
Robinson: Yes, it is a social novel, but it's also increasingly a psychological novel. I really think that you should tic in both, and I try to do that -- to give a reasonably realistic picture of Britain today and to create characters who are psychologically interesting. They're partly a product of their society and partly a reaction against it.
BiC: In your books you've dealt with various social problems: in A Necessary End, police corruption, in Wednesday's Child, child abuse, and in Past Reason Hated, you were somewhat ahead of your time with what's currently called "lesbian chic." Do you consciously set out to deal with a certain issue in each book, or does it just evolve?
Robinson: It's partly conscious, because each novel does revolve around a problem that, as you suggested, seems to become more prevalent after the book than it had been before it. Wednesday's Child, for example, was based on a true story about two people, a man and a woman, posing as child-care workers, showing identification, who called at houses and said there had been allegations of abuse and that they were empowered to take the child into custody. When I wrote that book, two or three years ago, it was based on a very insubstantial newspaper report. The people didn't get caught, and there were suspicions of organized pedophile gangs. So I thought, What if someone was foolish enough to believe them and to hand over the child? And that was the start of Wednesday's Child. But when I was in England three weeks ago, the headline in the Yorkshire Post on the day we arrived was about a couple representing themselves as child-care workers and coming to houses in the area.
BiC: After living in Canada for 20 years, why are you still writing about Yorkshire?
Robinson: Because I know more about Yorkshire than I do about Canada and also because I'm now in a series -- I can't bring Banks to Canada. If I wanted to write about Canada, I'd start a new series.
BiC: British mysteries may be more saleable internationally, although I don't mean to imply you think about your work in such a cold-blooded way....
Robinson: I haven't always thought about it in such a cold-blooded way, although my agent now would be very upset if I wrote a book set in Canada! But let me tell you how little I did think in those terms when I started: the same year I wrote Gallows View I wrote a Canadian private-eye novel set in Toronto, and nobody wanted it.
BiC: Do you have any theories on the difference between American and British crime novels? Reginald Hill has said "the British crime story is essentially miniaturist; an American describing an anthill will aim at conveying the whole seething mass; the British writer will pick on a couple of ants and follow them underground."
Robinson: American crime novels tend to be more urban, whereas in British ones there's still a tendency towards a rural setting. Although that's changing a lot; British crime writers now set their books in cities like London, Nottingham, Liverpool, Leeds, or wherever, and they are showing the anthill. I think that shows the influence of the American writers; American crime writing is very popular in England -- people like Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain. I think American crime writers on the whole seem to be more obsessed with the really sleazy aspects of humanity. Someone like James Lee Burke, who sets his books in the New Orleans area, is a fantastic writer, but tends to deal with very, very violent, very displaced people. The book I'm reading at the moment, The Black Echo, by Michael Connolly, which is set in Los Angeles, is much the same: a veritable sewer of humanity. British writers tend not to
do that -- they may he still a little too genteel. I do think we're too quick to separate the American and the British, because we're overlooking the changes that have taken place in the last maybe five or 10 years. There are a number of American crime writers who are doing more rural and more character-based novels -- I'm thinking of people like Margaret Maron, whose The Bootlegger's Daughter won the Edgar last year, who sets her books in small towns in the South -people who are doing more what the English writers do. And then there are English writers -- like John Harvey for example, who sets his novels in Nottingham -- who are doing the "anthill" procedurals that the Americans do. So there's sort of a switch-over. The Canadians, as Usual, are probably somewhere in the middle.
BiC: Is your setting -- a group of connected towns and villages in rural Yorkshire -- a continuation of the archetypal English village we associate with Agatha Christie?
Robinson: Yes and no. I started doing that because those were the kinds of books I liked; I'm thinking of writers like Dorothy Simpson and June Thompson, and Ruth Rendell's Wexford series. I wanted to take a little bit of England -Yorkshire, which is my England -- and make it my own, and give it a detective and a sergeant, as they had done. But I think that's changed in the later books, and I find myself doing more and More stories with an urban setting. In the one that I've just finished, Banks spends most of his time in Leeds. Sometimes I wish I'd chosen Leeds, which is where I'm from, rather than this amorphous Dales setting, simply because of a tradition. But at least I gave myself -,I town with enough people to reflect the urban problems in the real Britain, with a few villages in which to set different psychological, isolated studies. So I tried to create the best of both worlds.
BiC: How do -you go about creating your detective hero? In your own Image, as an alter ego ...?
Robinson: There's a strong element of creating somebody who is sort of an ideal You, but at the same time you give him faults that you don't have yourself to make him more human. I mean, Banks may he better than me in a number of ways -- more courageous, sharper, he may even be more Moral, but I give him one or two weaknesses. I think with any detective hero that anyone creates, You put bits of yourself into it in ways that are very obvious -- like Music, for example. Banks's love of music reflects my own, as does his taste; I couldn't have my detective going around liking music that I hated. But I still try to make him listen to things that I wouldn't.
BiC: How did Banks get to be so cultured? In one book he sits down one evening to read Madame Bovary, which is not something you expect the average police officer to do.
Robinson: You'd be surprised what the average police officer would do. I have a policeman friend in Toronto whose book collection is bigger than mine, and Whose range in taste is immense, so I don't think you can really typecast in that way.
BiC: As a southerner who previously worked in London, Banks is something of an outsider in Yorkshire.
Robinson: I suppose he reflects me being an Outsider in Canada. He sees Yorkshire almost through a tourist's eyes. A person who had always lived there would not look at the views and describe them in the same way Banks Would. Banks would stand and admire a landscape, whereas a local Person would say "It's all right to graze some sheep LIP there, but that wall will have to come down." Banks can romanticize the landscape. And that's an aspect I like -- not everybody does. A lot of people think that description in crime novels is padding, but I happen to enjoy it, in books that I read and books that I write, so writers who give me a strong sense of the place Where the action is set are the writers I enjoy most. In Simenon's Maigret books, you can smell Paris -- I wish I Could do it that economically.
BiC: You broke out of the Banks series with Caedmon's Song, your fifth novel to be published. Were you getting tired of the Banks novels?
Robinson: No. I haven't done enough of them to get tired yet. But I do want the opportunity to do different things if I feel like doing them. My publishers were very good about Caedmon's Song; they liked it, so they published it, and I've never been discouraged from trying anything like that again. In fact, the book I'm working on at the moment is a non- series book.
BiC: How would you characterize Caedmon's Song -- as a thriller, a psychological novel...
Robinson: I'd call it a psychological suspense novel, which is I think what I'd call the one I'm working on at the moment.
BiC: There was a mystery element too, because the protagonist had to find out (along with the reader) what had happened to her.
Robinson: I think there's no such thing as pure suspense -- suspense has to have mystery, and a mystery novel has to have some suspense, which is not just to do with "who done it," but "how are they going to capture him, will they stop him?" So I think there are elements of mystery in Caedmon's Song: piecing together the past, the memory, and then trying to track down the source of that. What interested me about that book was how people would respond to this character, who you couldn't help but feel for, but who was doing the most horrible things. And in a way, You're cheering for her, aren't you? But you should feel uncomfortable about cheering for her .... In Germany, it was put in an omnibus edition with the book of Fatal Attraction, which is interesting.
BiC: Getting back to the Banks series, what is the future of Banks's unconsummated love interest, Jenny Fuller?
Robinson: She's going to keep coming back as a psychologist that the police consult, and as a friend. She's a friend of Banks, definitely. She's a woman he can talk to; they have a past that they've managed to overcome -- not necessarily lust, I don't think you ever overcome lust- but they've determined what their relationship is going to be, and they can deal with each other on a professional level. There's one school of thought -- the Americans tend to do this -- that you keep your detective unmarried and free so that there can be a romance in every book. And I wanted to avoid that, because I tend to feel that too much romance spoils a detective novel. There's also a trend in the British school now for unmarried, rather unkempt detectives who live at home with cats and listen to jazz, which I enjoy, but I didn't want Banks to be one of those. I wanted to give him a fairly stable marriage, but I had to give him an independent wife. Sandra is an interesting character, one that I haven't explored as much as I'd like to. She has a lot to carry; many policemen who are married have problems because they're away a lot, their hours are very unsocial, and if the wife depends a great deal on her husband for her entertainment, her well-being, her life, then she's going to be very disappointed, and it will end in divorce. So in order to give a stable marriage to a policeman, I had to give him a very independent wife. Sandra pursues her own career, and she's often not there when he'd like her to be, just as hes not when she'd like him to he there. And I see this probably causing more friction as the books go along.
BiC: Some people have complained that, particularly in the early books, your female characters are stereotypes. Do you think there is any validity to this?
Robinson: No, I don't feel I've ever had trouble portraying women characters. There was a review of Gallows View that's always been one of my favourites, which was a mix of interview and review, done by a woman whose name I can't remember, that said the book had "as much style and artistic merit as a stag movie." She was very nice when she interviewed me .... Anyway, I've always felt they should have put that on the cover of the paperback, but my publishers wouldn't do it! But it's rubbish -- somebody has an attitude and a particular bee in their bonnet over something and what they tend to do is take it out on any writer they review. It wouldn't only be me, any number of other people Would be misrepresented in the same way. In Gallows View, one thing I tried to understand was the relationship between two women that could to some extent exclude a man, even though he was married to one and almost romantically involved with the other. That sort of thing is a great mystery to a lot of men.
BiC: Perhaps It's the rather raunchy nature of some of your plot devices that has, got you into trouble. I'm thinking of the venereal-disease clue in Gallows View and the lethal condom in the story "Anna Said."
Robinson: I don't mind if it gets me into trouble. I mean, women are endlessly interesting, and sometimes raunchy. I also have a very mischievous impulse in me, and if I want to caricature a feminist like Dorothy Wycombe, I'll do it, and I know I'll get into trouble. If it gets by my editor, who is a woman, if it gets by my copy editor, who is a woman, I figure, OK, it's fair game. Sometimes I expect a backlash, and I don't mind it; I think it's just poking to see if the thing's alive every now and then.
BiC: Your portrayal of Brenda, the child's mother in Wednesday's Child, who is a very imperfect person, is realistic and yet quite sympathetic.
Robinson: I like Brenda. I've probably known a number of Brendas, especially back in England -- people who are not equipped really to bring up children, for whatever reason, and yet they're probably fairly decent people at heart. On the surface, she's somewhat of a slattern, an airhead, even. One of the reasons she makes such a disastrous decision is that she is a northern working-class woman and is cowed by authority. So when people come along with the right accent, the right kind of clothes, the right kind of official- looking card, a woman like her is either going to he immediately antagonistic, or if she's a character like Brenda, immediately cowed by them.
BiC: As the series goes on, all your characters, including your team of detectives, are becoming more complex, as is the interplay between them.
Robinson: I think what happened was that it became more of a family than I'd realized at first. Of course Banks still has to take the lion's share of viewpoint scenes. The books are written with multiple viewpoints, but you have to have a dominant character to give the reader someone to follow. But I like to use other characters' viewpoints, and I've often used a character involved in the investigation, a non-police character, and usually a female. It stops me from getting bored; I have Banks as an anchor, but I also have the freedom to explore other characters and to create new characters for each book, which I probably wouldn't have if I stuck to first-person narration.
BiC: How do you develop your plots?
Robinson: Plotting is very difficult, and I don't pay enough attention to it before I start writing. The things that I tend to think about before I begin are a strong visualization of the setting and the scene, a strong sense of the characters. In a Banks novel, you're dealing with different characters in each book, and some that carry over. They're not so much a problem, except that there has to be a development in their lives; Banks has to change, has to develop, otherwise he'll just be static. But you're also dealing with a victim, and a whole circle around this victim, and I think about those people. I tend to start with a body somewhere, often in an interesting location, and work back through what it might be in this person's character or psychological make-up that he, as that very strange phrase goes, "got himself killed." It's an odd way of saying it, but when you think about it, yes, what was it about this person that got him killed? It could have been that he was blackmailing someone, or that he overheard something he shouldn't have. In a crime novel, it's got to be more interesting than in most cases in real life, which are usually domestic and sordid.
BiC: You've got two books in the works'. One is finished, I think?
Robinson: Yes, it's a Banks novel, called Dry Bones That Dream. I'm not sure when it's coming out. It began with a tiny newspaper item about an accountant living in an isolated Lancashire village who, while his wife and kid,, Were tied Lip ill the house, was taken outside and executed gangland-style. Nobody could figure out why this mild-mannered accountant living in this little village should be executed gangland-style. When I read that, I started to use my imagination. I didn't really want to know why in this case. I found out one or two things later, but by then I was well off on my own adventure, which led me somewhere completely different. The only interesting newspaper articles that you can get a novel out of are ones that tell you very little. [The other one is] a Suspense novel. I don't want to say too much, because I'm still only part way into the first draft. It's set in Los Angeles, Toronto, and Yorkshire, and it's about an actress, which is how you can link the three places together.
BiC: Have you considered writing a "straight" novel, whatever that means?
Robinson: I suppose a "straight" novel would be one that doesn't necessarily involve crime or murder. I've often thought about it, and if I did, I don't know what kind of book it Would be, maybe historical. I'd like to write one of those turn-of-the-century things, and get the Merchant-Ivory people to bring oil their lawns and their mists, and make a lot of money out of it! Or else, I'm interested in the period of my late childhood and early adolescence in England. There were books around then like Billy Liar and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life. It was when the Yorkshire working-class novel really came into its own. It's an interesting period. That's a tradition that's kind of fizzled now, really subverted by the southern postmodernist drivel. A comic novel would be great fun, but very difficult to write. I always try to put a bit of humour into my books, but I'm never sure whether people get it or not. Nobody ever comes Lip to me and says "Your books are hilarious."
BiC: Are there any plans to put out a collection of your short stories?
Robinson: No, I haven't done enough yet. In fact I'm not sure exactly how many I've written. A number of the stories do have Canadian settings.
BiC: So you've gone Canadian with your stories, at least?
Robinson: To a certain extent, yes. I would like to say one thing about being a Canadian writer. Most of the time, I write about Yorkshire; I don't use Canadian settings. But I think that if you took at Canadian writers from a slightly different point of view, what you're dealing with is a number of people who came here from other countries. What Canada does is give them an opportunity to write about where they come from in a way that they never could if they still lived there. I think for me it's the objectivity, the detachment from the class system, which I could never overcome there, as a working-class Yorkshire lad. Now I don't feel that, and I can look back on it objectively and I can use it and analyse it to some extent. And that's what being "a Canadian writer" means to me.