The van skids to a halt on the lonely hill top lane. Occasional distant lights from isolated farms and cottages are all that pierce the darkness. The young men inside the van giggle as they open the rear doors and throw the girl from the dirty mattress on which she has been sprawled. She hits the roadside with a body-jarring crunch.
Thus begins the 23rd episode in the career of Yorkshire copper, Alan Banks, who we first met in 1987, when he had moved from London to the Yorkshire Dales to work in the market town of Eastvale. Banks is now Detective Superintendent, but what long-time readers of the series might call The Eastvale Repertory Company are pretty much all present and correct, in the shape of fellow cops Annie Cabbot, Winsome Jackson and Ken Blackstone. We even have a guest appearance from one of Banks’s less wholesome colleagues, Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess, who is now working for the National Crime Agency, the closest thing to the FBI within the UK.
The unfortunate girl we meet in the first few pages does not take the stage again, unless we include her appearance on the mortuary slab. She has been found by a shocked cyclist, the morning after her ride in the van ended so abruptly. She is stark naked, and has died from a severe beating. Whatever took place on Bradham Lane is not the most pressing concern for Alan Banks, however. He is called to a high level conference and brought into what will become an investigation into the life and crimes of Danny Caxton, a much loved and respected entertainer and performer on stage and TV. Caxton, like his real life counterparts Savile and Harris, was ever-present in living rooms and lounges of ordinary people up and down the land, for decades. Now in his eighties, he has been accused of historic sex crimes.
While Banks must focus on the Caxton case, by his new seniority he must also oversee the investigation into the murder of the girl on Bradham Lane. Annie Cabbot is doing most of the legwork on this, and with the help of Detective Constable Geraldine Masterson, she discovers that the dead girl is Mimosa ‘Mimsy’ Moffat. Mimsy was 15, knocking-on 25, sexually attractive and experienced, and with a home life so bad that neither ‘home’ nor ‘life’ seem to be the right words. Cabbot and Masterson begin to explore the connection between Mimsy and the Pakistani Briton who runs a kebab shop on the edge of a nearby run-down estate.
By this time, we have met Danny Claxton in his Ponderosa-style home, and a thoroughly reptilian character he seems to be – a far cry from the smiling, handsome and genial TV presence of his younger days. Banks’s chief witness – and accuser – is Linda Palmer. She is now a widow in middle age, but has become a respected and well published poet. Her accusation about Caxton dates back to what should have been a happy family holiday in Blackpool in the 1960s.
As the two cases run their parallel courses, I found the investigation into Mimsy Moffat’s death the more compelling. Robinson takes an unflinching look at the issue of vulnerable white girls being groomed and abused by men of Pakistani origin. He exposes the extremes of views held by all those involved, from the men themselves, the girls and their relatives and – most tellingly – those in positions of power, such as the police and social workers. Banks himself, probably due to his management responsibilities, keeps his own anger in check, but Robinson allows Annie Cabbot to voice her violent disgust – a feeling which I infer is shared by the author.
The book is only a whodunnit for a short period of time, as there are enough clues for CriFi buffs to work out who murdered Mimsy. Robinson’s broader message seems to be a variant on Who Killed Cock Robin? For the fly, the fish, the beetle and the owl we could probably substitute:
‘”I,” said the policeman, “with my fear of being called racist.”‘
‘” I,” said the social worker, “with my political correctness.”‘
‘”I,” said the kebab shop owner, “with my attitude towards women.”‘
‘”I,” said the mother, “with my drug addiction and neglect.”‘
There is closure, of a kind, in both cases, but Robinson, in his epilogue, offers us nothing resembling a happy ending. This book is, at its core, a brilliant police procedural. Crime fiction fans are no strangers to the police interview room, but Robinson not only uses the staple ingredient very cleverly, he gives it a lick of fresh paint, a new carpet – and maybe even a nice vase of flowers on the table. My only irritation was – as always with Banks – that we learn far more than we ever need to know about his tastes in music, but an irritation is all it was, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this excellent book.