December 8, 8.11am
As a general rule, I'm not a massive fan of novels that proceed along dual timelines where history is entwined with the present.
As it is a general rule, however, there are plenty of exceptions. Novels with a sharp historical focus are usually exempt, and Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, one of my favourite novels of 2005, is a big exception. But crime novels often work less well, so it was a pleasant surprise (if not a big one given the consistent excellence of Peter Robinson's Alan Banks novels) that Piece of My Heart, worked on every level.
Piece of my Heart - the 16th Banks book, not the 17th as I have reported elsewhere - slips back and forth between the late Swinging Sixties and present day as two murders, linked apparently by little than a tangential connection with the '60s sex, drug and rock 'n' roll hippy scene.
In the late summer of '69, Detective Inspector Stanley Chadwick is investigating the murder of a young hippy/music groupie at an open air festival that can probably only be described as Yorkshire's answer to Woodstock (although it is big enough for Led Zeppelin to be playing while Linda Lofthouse is stabbed during a walk in the woods).
Back in the new millennium, Banks, after a rough summer in which he has lost both his house to a fire and his brother (see Playing with Fire and A Strange Affair), is looking into the murder of a young journalist in a holiday cottage in the Dales.
The characterisation of, and contrast between, the two detectives is fascinating and helps to account for some of the success of the twin timeline book, one of whom, Chadwick, is bewildered by the chnaging mores of the 1960s, while Banks, is to some extent a product of those liberalising times.
Chadwick is an archetypal straight-laced, straight-backed, by-the-rules, no-nonsense, post-War copper. A man made by and haunted by the war. He disapproves of young colleagues whose hair touches their collars just as much as he does the hippies in their communes smoking joints.
Banks, by contrast, is a more relaxed bend-the-rules-to-nail-the-villains type. A DCI likely to worry his subordinates by his flouting of the PACE regulations. At the same time, however, we also discover that whatever their professional differences and their starkly contrasting outlooks on life, there are shared values and concerns, not least when their family lives come to touch on the storyline.
What they have in common is that they are excellent detectives, great exponents of the pre-DNA technology art of detection. And in due course their investigations converge around the activities of a 1960s band and their followers. The flaw that often exposes the twin timeline genre is that the flitting back and forth between the two all too regularly kills off any momentum in the story-telling.
Robinson never allows that to happen here, moving both stories on with great skill, emphasising the 1969 angle to great effect early in the book while letting Banks gradually take over in the second half, where for big fans of the series there are interesting developments in the team around not Banks - not least a new Chief Super following the loss to dry-walling retirement of Banks' long-term boss and mentor Gristhorpe.
This is a terrific addition to the series. Robinson, who is clearly a keen enthusiast for the 1960s music scene has a lot of fun with that area of the plot, creating in loving detail the Hippy communes of that era and the drug-fuelled music scene. And it is a great procedural, with a cracking plot that keeps the reader guessing until (somewhere near) the end.
Here's to you Mr Robinson. Keep them coming.