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The calm of the English countryside is rudely shattered when two run-down barges on a remote canal explode into flame. When the smoke settles, two charred corpses remain, those of young junkie Tina Aspern and failed artist Tom McMahon. Enter Inspector Alan Banks, on a quest to determine who the intended target was and why. Not an easy challenge, as he encounters a pedophile, art forgers, and an anti-social delinquent (Tina's unfaithful boyfriend Mark), potential suspects all. Peter Robinson gradually unravels this tangled web with typical skill in Playing with Fire, a tightly plotted and suspenseful police procedural that justifies the growing reputation of this English-born, Toronto-based writer. Such peers as Stephen King and Dennis Lehane are admirers, and it is easy to see why.
The crime fiction aficionado can be excused for occasionally getting anxious that the recurring lead character of a long-running series might be about to overstay his welcome. Recent bestsellers in this series like The Summer That Never Was and Cold Is the Grave certainly gave no sign of that. Happily, neither does Playing with Fire, even though it marks Banks's 14th appearance. Robinson continues to dig deep into his protagonist's psyche, and Banks remains a fascinatingly flawed yet likeable character. His neuroses and sometimes petty jealousies, especially in relation to former lover DI Annie Cabbot, are ones we can relate and admit to. And like Ian Rankin, Robinson uses popular music as a signpost for the feelings and personality of his characters. Banks deeply immerses himself in the music of such wonderful singers as Mariza and Cassandra Wilson, while this book's Mark and Tina loved Beth Orton. Some enterprising record label should release an "approved by Robinson/Banks" CD collection. In the meantime, let's hope for many more future titles in this superb series. --Kerry Doole --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Edgar winner Robinson's 14th police procedural to feature Yorkshire DCI Alan Banks isn't quite up to the level of last year's superlative Close to Home, but it's nonetheless an engaging pleasure. Three victims have died in two suspicious fires: Tom McMahon, an eccentric, mostly unsuccessful local artist; Tina Aspern, a young heroin addict estranged from an abusive stepfather; and Roland Gardiner, another down-and-out chap but one who just happens to have a fireproof safe containing a substantial amount of cash and what appears to be a Turner watercolor. To solve the crimes, Banks and his team-DI Annie Cabbot and the refreshingly direct DC Winsome Jackman-pursue good old-fashioned police work, interviewing witnesses, neighbors, relatives and lovers and sifting through the evidence gathered by their specialist colleagues. They also make ample use of contemporary forensic technology. In keeping with the moody and introspective Alan Banks, the narrative style is tempered and deliberate, perhaps too much so for those who prefer, say, the riveting urgency of a Michael Connelly thriller. Characterization is Robinson's real strength. Virtually every character is etched with care, precision and emotional insight. With each book, the quietly competent Alan Banks gets more and more human; like red wine, he gets better and more interesting with age.
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