As his 25th DCI Banks novel is published, Yorkshire author Peter Robinson talks to Hannah Stephenson about researching creepy plots and keeping up with the times.
Genial crimewriter Peter Robinson is happy to be back on home turf again, as he celebrates the 25th novel in his hugely successful DCI Banks series.
The Armley-born author can’t quite believe the anniversary, and admits it’s become more difficult to think of new plots for his famous detective, brought to life by Stephen Tompkinson in the popular TV adaptation, and his sidekick DS Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe in the TV series).
“In the last few books, I’ve looked more towards stories that are in the news than I did previously,” Robinson explains. “It becomes more difficult, simply because you use up material with each book.”
The award-winning writer now lives in Toronto, Canada, but also has a cottage in Richmond, Yorkshire, which is currently being refurbished.
He emigrated in 1974, to continue his studies after doing an English literature degree at Leeds University. He went on to do an MA in English and creative writing at Canada’s University of Windsor, with American author Joyce Carol Oates as his tutor.
For years, he only wrote poetry, and created Inspector Alan Banks to stave off the homesickness he was feeling, imagining himself back home, with his detective based in the fictional town of Eastvale in North Yorkshire.
“At night, I would write crime just to relax,” he says. “Before crime fiction, I was writing poetry and had a part-time teaching job, which was enough to get by.”
His wife, Sheila, a lawyer whom he met in Canada after giving a writing talk at a school her son attended (they’d both been married before), is the first person who sees each new book – and his latest, Careless Love, was no exception.
It’s the first book in his first trilogy, beginning with two suspicious deaths – a university student discovered in an abandoned car on the Yorkshire moors and a well-dressed man found in wild moorland, partially devoured by animals.
“One of the plots involves an old adversary of Banks and Annie who escaped – you know, the one that got away – and they get some information that he’s around again. That strand’s going to run through the next two books as well.”
He admits advances in forensic science have made the job of the crime writer more difficult.
“I sometimes wish that I were writing books set in a period before DNA and the internet. It does get very complicated because you have to try to keep up with things, and there’s a fair bit about social media in Careless Love. To be honest, I’m not a social media person so it all had to be researched.
“If you go back to the old days, setting your books in the Fifties, you’ve got just an old handset telephone, typewriter and little grey cells.”
His work reached a greater audience thanks to the hit DCI Banks TV series, which ran from 2010-16, but there are no plans for its return. Robinson says he feels sad the storylines veered completely away from the original books. “They got a little bit lost there. In the last series, they killed off one of the major characters (Annie). I’ve had emails about that, saying ‘How could you do that?’ And I have to explain: ‘I didn’t do it – she’s still alive in the books!’
“I knew they were going to kill her off but they didn’t want my input. Andrea, who plays Annie, knew about it too and it was upsetting in some ways. I think it helped to bring about the end, but it had been a good series.
“I thought Stephen was excellent as Banks, when I got used to the idea of him not particularly looking like my idea of the character. And Andrea was great as Annie.
“There were so many books that they hadn’t done. But one of the problems was that the plots were too complex,” he adds.
Much of the series was filmed in Leeds, as well as in Harrogate and Bradford. As in the books, the dramatic Yorkshire landscape was often an important backdrop to dramatic scenes with Ilkley Moor making several cameos. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Kirkgate Market and Banks’s cottage in the Yorkshire Dales have all also featured on screen during the show’s run on ITV.
Robinson, 68, writes a book a year, but hasn’t aged Banks in the same time frame. The detective has grown older but not 30 years older – the first Banks novel was published 31 years ago back in 1987. Yet he has changed over the years.
“Things have changed in his life, cases have affected him,” explains Robinson. “He’s become perhaps more philosophical, more melancholy. His kids have left home, he’s split up with his wife. He’s become a bit more isolated and more a lonely character. He’s less gregarious than he was in the earlier books.”
When in the UK, Robinson loves catching up with friends and getting a blast of the Yorkshire Dales.
He often bumps into pals, including Ian Rankin, Michael Connolly, Mark Billingham and Ann Cleeves, on the crime-writing festival circuit – but says their conversations are more about the industry in general rather than their latest plots.
“We don’t talk about crime, we just complain about publishers,” he says with a chuckle.
Robinson has previously explained how Eastvale is modelled on North Yorkshire towns such as Ripon and Richmond and has joked that “I’ve probably killed the population of the Yorkshire Dales three times over as it is!”
Eastvale is located to the north of Ripon, close to the A1, while the surrounding countryside and villages are an amalgam of several dales, particularly Wensleydale and Swaledale. He based Helmthorpe and Gratly on Hawes and Gayle, for example, and Lyndgarth on Reeth.
Robinson has said although names and locations have changed, he knows where all his fictional places really are, while the advantage of having a fictional town is that he can add new areas he has never mentioned before for new books.
He says he watches too much television and keeps abreast of crime drama – unsurprisingly, he loved Happy Valley and Line Of Duty – and when he’s writing his thrillers, sometimes he spooks himself.
“Writing Aftermath was one of the spookiest ones, researching the killer couples like the Wests and (Ian) Brady and (Myra) Hindley and trying to assume that perspective to some extent,” he says.
“Part of the reason for writing that kind of book is maybe to try and make sense of how those things can happen, and I don’t think that I did, I don’t think I ever made sense of it, but you can scare yourself sometimes, in the sense that you can give yourself a few bad dreams.”
But his biggest fears at the moment don’t concern the type of crime he writes about. “My biggest fears are political, in the sense of Trump and some of the European populist governments, the right-wing populist governments that we’re getting,” he says. “In Canada, we’re fairly lucky. Canadians are pretty moderate. Canada’s a good country to grow up in.
“I think certainly, I fear less for my granddaughter growing up there than I would if she were growing up in the United States, because it’s a less dangerous society.”
For now, he has no intention of returning to the UK permanently, or of retiring. Completing the trilogy will take at least another couple of years, he reckons.
“Writers don’t usually retire, do they? I’ve still got a way to go to that and, as long as I can do it, I’ll keep on doing it.”
Careless Love by Peter Robinson is published by Hodder & Stoughton on July 26, priced £20.
Book tour travelling across Yorkshire
Peter Robinson’s latest book tour will be visiting several places in Yorkshire throughout this month.
Dates are planned at the Harrogate Crime Festival, as well as in Richmond, Thirsk, Ripon, York, Wakefield and Leeds between July 20 and July 24 ahead of its UK publication on July 26.
A further signing is planned in Northallerton on August 11.
Further dates may be added for the national tour to promote Careless Love, with events currently running until towards the end of September.
The new DCI Banks book is due to be released in his home country of Canada in October and in the US in January.
For more details about times and locations of the forthcoming UK book tour, visit www.inspectorbanks.com.