Peter Robinson has written eighteen Inspector Alan Banks novels since beginning the series in 1987, as well as two standalone novels and a couple of collections of short stories, one of which will become available in September. His books and stories have won numerous awards, including five Arthur Ellis, an Anthony, and an Edgar. Born in Yorkshire, he moved to Canada for graduate school, where he studied with Joyce Carol Oates. He has a PhD in English from York University and has taught at a number of Toronto community colleges and universities, serving as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Windsor, 1992-93.
Robinson now divides his time between Toronto and Richmond, North Yorkshire. In 2006 he was invited to join The Detection Club. He was gracious enough to take time from a well-deserved rest after his recently completed American tour for All the Colors of Darkness to answer some questions from NMR’s Dana King.
DK: The MI6 angle adds multiple layers of complications to All the Colors of Darkness. Whether they’re involved, or how directly, in the deaths of Silbert and Hardcastle is kept slippery all the way through to the end. Their agents are just “spooky” enough to create a sense of unease, even when they’re not around. Did some event spur you to include the intelligence branches in this book, or did this arise organically as you developed the plot?
PR: There was no specific event, just a sense of growing discomfort between the different areas of policing, with the intelligence services grabbing more and more territory and power, and, of course, being far less accountable for their often clandestine and illegal actions than the more visible police force.
DK: Please complete this sentence: “If you like (insert character’s name here), you’ll like Alan Banks.”
DK: Banks has been going strong for over twenty years now. To what do you attribute his continued popularity?
PR: Over that time he has grown as a character, become more complex, philosophical and melancholy, even, as things have affected him in his life and on his job. But he remains very much of an “everyman” character, a decent bloke who tries to do the best thing (most of the time) and someone you mind having a pint with. He has no airs and graces.
DK: Detective Superintendent Gervaise was, to me, the most intriguing minor character. She takes her bureaucratic responsibilities quite seriously, yet gives Banks his head when she can, though in a deniable way, so she doesn’t expose herself much. Was this your original intention for her, or did she evolve into it?
PR: She is still involving. At first I didn’t know which way she was going to go, and she still keeps me guessing. I like her.
DK: You’ve written two standalone novels, five years apart, but none since 1995. Any reason you stopped, or any plans to do another?
PR: I started writing a lot of short stories and they satisfied my need to work on projects other than Banks. Also, I think the series took a leap with In a Dry Season which also satisfied those needs I do have a couple of ideas on the back burner, though, and I don’t think it will be too long before I get down to work on another standalone.
DK: Your police characters (Jackman, Cabbot, Gervaise) are well-developed enough to carry a story on their own. Do you have any plans to let one of them step forward and let Banks take a complementary role?
PR: I’m not sure. I still think of Winsome and Catherine Gervaise as newcomers, works in progress, though Annie has developed tremendously since her debut in In a Dry Season and carried large parts of Friend of the Devil and All the Colors of Darkness on her own. But I do think that the relationship between her and Banks is a great source of dramatic tension in the books, and I would hate to lose that dimension.
DK: It just occurred to me those last couple of questions might be interpreted as being dismissive of Banks; not at all. His life is as well rounded as any fictional hero who comes to mind, much better than most. Please tell us a little of his origins, and whether his development has been part of an arc, or do you just see how he evolves book to book?
PR: He just evolves from book to book. I don’t have any sense of an arc, either within each book or within the series as a whole. I don’t outline so the most interesting ideas usually occur on the day I write them. Banks probably has his origins in a detective like Simenon’s Maigret, though he has come a long way from them.
DK: What’s next for Inspector Banks?
PR: The next book is a collection of short stories called The Price f Love. Two of them are Banks novellas of over 100 pages each, “Going Back” and “Like a Virgin.” I wrote “Going Back” some years ago, but it has never been published in the USA before. I wrote “Like a Virgin” over Christmas and new year 2008/9, and it picks up a few weeks after All the Colors of Darkness goes back to examine Banks’s last case in London before he moved up to Yorkshire, filling in some key episodes in his background. The collection is due out on September 29, 2009.
DK: You split your time between Canada and Great Britain, with I assume is a fair amount of time in the United States doing promotional work. What do you see as the primary differences between the crime fiction in the three countries, if any?
PR: Not much these days. It used to be that the US was more gritty and hard-boiled and the UK more cosy, but I don’t think you can say that today. Canada, as usual, is somewhere in between. It’s a country obsessed with “literary” significance, so it’s hardly a place where genre writers thrive. There are many, of course—Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Rick Mofina, Rich Blechta, Maureen Jennings, Mary Jane Maffini, Giles Blunt, Linwood Barclay and Jose Latour, to name only a few—but you don’t hear of a lot of them outside of Canada and they don’t get a great deal of promotion or respect within it.
DK: Do you receive different feedback from your readers in different continents?
PR: No. Most of them just ask or express concern about Banks’s love life or simply write to tell me they like the series. I also get emails about the music in the books (pro and con) and all the mistakes I make.
DK: Do you plot your books out in advance, make them up as you go, or use what Patricia Highsmith called the headlights system, where you only plan out a few chapters ahead of where you are?
PR: I don’t plot ahead. I make it up as I go along, hoping to stay one step ahead of myself. It doesn’t always work, and I sometimes find myself pounding my head against a brick wall. Best take a break then and come back the following day.
DK: Do you prefer working on the first draft, or editing?
PR: First draft. Much more exciting. That’s where it all happens. Editing is like when you get your essay back from the proof all marked up in red.
DK: Who do you consider to be your greatest influences as a writer?
PR: My mother, for reading to me in bed every night when I was a child, and my father, who took me seriously enough from a very early age.
About the Author:
Peter Robinson’s award-winning novels have been named a "Best Book of the Year" by Publishers Weekly, a "Notable Book" by the New York Times, and a "Page Turner of the Week" by People. Robinson was born and raised in Yorkshire, but has lived in North America for nearly 25 years. He now divides his time between North America and the U.K.