Many Rivers to Cross
By Peter Robinson
McClelland & Stewart, $30
After 25 previous crime novels with the same protagonist, there’s not much left to say about either British-born Canadian author Peter Robinson or his series protagonist, Yorkshire police investigator Det. Supt. Alan Banks.
Inevitably they’ve both grown older. In Banks’s case, he’s run through a marriage and several serious affairs, including with a colleague or two, his two children have grown up and are thriving in their fields, his home has burned down around him in a murder attempt, and other police officers have come and gone from his headquarters.
He’s always Yorkshire-based, though, and his love of music remains various and passionate.
Through the series, there’s been murder after murder, corruption after corruption, cruelty after cruelty for Banks to decipher in a few hundred pages and award after award for Robinson and his work, along with, at one point, a TV series featuring Banks.
Even after such a long history, it’s not necessary to have read earlier entries before undertaking Many Rivers to Cross, but it would certainly help. Characters from both sides of the law recur from earlier ventures, and strands of plot weave through past novels to the present one.
One of the constants is Det. Insp. Annie Cabbot, once upon a time Banks’s romantic interest, but more to the point a colleague for years. In recent novels, her elderly artist father, Ray, has moved to the region and so has Zelda, his much younger companion, a beautiful Eastern European woman with a horrendous history.
Zelda was kidnapped as a teenager and trafficked by Croatian gangsters as a sex slave. Now, her precise memory for faces has her working for British police identifying criminals she encountered during her slave years.
Large portions of Many Rivers to Cross involve her efforts to track down the brothers who were her first, brutal tormentors – one of them spotted in London with a man with links to the earlier arson that almost killed Banks. It seems that it some respects, the wicked world is a small one.
The event that kicks off Banks’s own plunge back into murderous investigation is the discovery of the body of a small boy, about 13 years old, stuffed into a trash bin. He appears to be middle Eastern, and is carrying a trace of cocaine, but no identification.
His presence in a northern region where middle Easterners, never mind unknown boys on their own, are rare, takes some deciphering. His mystery is shortly augmented by the discovery of the body of a hardscrabble drug addict, who may have overdosed, or been murdered.
The sources, purveyors, and consumers of drugs are far flung and intricate, as Banks and his team deduce – often enough depending on guesses, assumptions, and intuitive leaps that do make sense in the end. It may or may not be realistic that police conversations are dotted with the word “maybe” as they speculate about who might be doing what to whom, but it’s certainly how this set of cops operates.
Beneath the novel’s various crimes and investigations – both Banks’s and Zelda’s – is the serious theme of human exploitation – of women, of refugees, and others among the helpless and vulnerable.
Tucked into the form and format of a police procedural crime novel is a portrait of suffering, individual and general, that is terrible to endure and necessary, in Robinson’s veteran hands, to acknowledge. In familiar, plot-easy fashion, he makes awful real-world stuff unavoidably vivid and clear.
Joan Barfoot is a novelist living in London