Chief Inspector Alan Banks finds himself up against a diabolical arsonist in this electrifying novel of suspense from New York Times bestselling author Peter Robinson.
In the early hours of the morning, a man reports a fire on two old canal boats. One of the firefighters notices the use of accelerant at the scene and calls the police, but by the time Inspector Banks arrives, the fire brigade have put out the flames and only the smoldering wreckage remains. A body has been found on each barge, and all the evidence points towards a deliberate arson attack.
One of the victims is Tina, a young girl with a drug addiction and a terrible past who had been living with her boyfriend Mark. The other is Tom, an artist who had been living alone. Now, with little evidence to go on and a number of possible suspects, including Tina's boyfriend, the local 'lock-keeper' who reported the fire, and Tina's own father, Banks must begin to delve into the lives of the victims, and to discover who could have wanted them out of the way forever...
From the master of psychological suspense, Peter Robinson, comes a mind-bending thriller of secrets and murder.
About the Author
One of the world’s most popular and acclaimed writers, Peter Robinson is the best-selling, award-winning author of the DCI Banks series; he has also written two short-story collections and three stand-alone novels, which combined have sold more than ten million copies around the world. Among his many honors and prizes are the Edgar Award, the CWA (UK) Dagger in the Library Award, and the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Martin Beck Award.
Read an Excerpt
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, burn’d on the water,” Banks whispered. As he spoke, his breath formed plumes of mist in the chill January air.
Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, standing beside him, must have heard, because she said, “You what? Come again.”
“A quotation,” said Banks. “From Antony and Cleopatra.”
“You don’t usually go around quoting Shakespeare like a copper in a book,” Annie commented.
“Just something I remember from school. It seemed appropriate.”
They were standing on a canal bank close to dawn watching two barges smoulder.…
The canal ran through some beautiful countryside, and tonight the usually quiet rural area was floodlit and buzzing with activity, noisy with the shouts of firefighters and the crackle of personal radios. The smell of burned wood, plastic and rubber hung in the air and scratched at the back of Banks’s throat when he breathed in. All around the lit-up area, the darkness of a pre-dawn winter night pressed in, starless and cold. The media had already arrived, mostly TV crews, because fires made for good visuals, even after they had gone out, but the firefighters and police officers kept them well at bay, and the scene was secure….
“Christ, it’s cold,” moaned Annie, stamping from foot to foot. She was mostly obscured by an old army greatcoat she had thrown on over her jeans and polo-neck sweater. She was also wearing a matching maroon woolly hat, scarf and gloves, along with black knee-high leather boots. Her nose was red.
“You’d better go and talk to the firefighters,” Banks said. “Get their stories while events are still fresh in their minds. You never know, maybe one of them will warm you up a bit.”
“Cheeky bastard.” Annie sneezed, blew her nose and wandered off.…
The young constable, who had been talking to the leading firefighter, walked over to Banks and introduced himself: PC Smythe, from the nearest village, Molesby.
“So you’re the one responsible for waking me up at this ungodly hour in the morning,” said Banks.
PC Smythe paled. “Well, sir, it seemed . . . I . . .”
“It’s okay. You did the right thing. Can you fill me in?”
“There’s not much to add, really, sir.” Smythe looked tired and drawn, as well he might. He hardly seemed older than twelve, and this was probably his first major incident.
“Who called it in?” Banks asked.
“Bloke called Hurst. Andrew Hurst. Lives in the old lockkeeper’s house about a mile away. He says he was just going to bed shortly after one o’clock, and he saw the fire from his bedroom window. He knew roughly where it was coming from, so he rode over to check it out.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“That’s about it. When he saw the fire, he phoned it in on his mobile, and the fire brigade arrived. They had a bit of trouble gaining access, as you can see. They had to run long hoses.”
Banks could see the fire engines parked about a hundred yards way, through the woods, where a narrow lane turned sharply right as it neared the canal. “Anyone get out alive?” he asked.
“We don’t know, sir. If they did, they didn’t hang around. We don’t even know how many people live there, or what their names are. All we know is there are two casualties.”
“Wonderful,” said Banks. It wasn’t anywhere near enough information. Arson was often used to cover up other crimes, to destroy evidence, or to hide the identity of a victim, and if that was the case here, Banks needed to know as much about the people who lived on the barges as possible. That would be difficult if they were all dead. “This lockkeeper, is he still around?”
“He’s not actually a lockkeeper, sir,” said PC Smythe. “We don’t use them anymore. The boat crews operate the locks themselves. He just lived in the old lockkeeper’s house. I took a brief statement and sent him home. Did I do wrong?”
“It’s all right,” Banks said. “We’ll talk to him later.…”
Annie Cabbot joined Banks and Smythe. “The station received the call at one thirty-one a.m.,” she said, “and the firefighters arrived here at one forty-four.”
“That sounds about right.”
“It’s actually a very good rural response time,” Annie said. “We’re lucky the station wasn’t staffed by retained men.”
Many rural stations, Banks knew, used “retained” men, or trained part-timers, and that would have meant a longer wait — at least five minutes for them to respond to their personal alerters and get to the station. “We’re lucky they weren’t on strike tonight, too,” he said, “or we’d probably still be waiting for the army to come and piss on the flames.”
They watched the firefighters pack up their gear in silence as the darkness brightened to grey, and a morning mist appeared seemingly from nowhere, swirling on the murky water and shrouding the spindly trees. In spite of the smoke stinging his lungs, Banks felt an intense craving for a cigarette rush through his system. He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. It had been nearly six months since he had smoked a cigarette, and he was damned if he was going to give in now.
As he fought off the desire, he caught a movement in the trees out of the corner of his eye. Someone was standing there, watching them. Banks whispered to Annie and Smythe, who walked along the bank in opposite directions to circle around and cut the interloper off. Banks edged back toward the trees. When he thought he was within decent range, he turned and ran toward the intruder. As he felt the cold, bare twigs whipping and scratching his face, he saw someone running about twenty yards ahead of him. Smythe and Annie were flanking the figure, crashing through the dark undergrowth, catching up quickly.
Smythe and Annie were by far the fittest of the three pursuers, and even though he’d stopped smoking, Banks soon felt out of breath. When he saw Smythe closing the gap and Annie nearing from the north, he slowed down and arrived panting in time to see the two wrestle a young man to the ground. In seconds he was handcuffed and pulled struggling to his feet.
They all stood still for a few moments to catch their breath, and Banks looked at the youth. He was in his early twenties, about Banks’s height, five foot nine, wiry as a pipe-cleaner, with a shaved head and hollow cheeks. He was wearing jeans and a scuffed leather jacket over a black T-shirt. He struggled with PC Smythe but was no match for the burly constable.
“Right,” said Banks. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?”
The boy struggled. “Nothing. Let me go! I haven’t done anything. Let me go!”
What People are Saying About This
“The Alan Banks mystery-suspense novels are, simply put, the best series now on the market.”
“A happy discovery.”
“Robinson actually seems to grow in front of our eyes, delivering books of greater complexity each time.”
“Stunningly complex and intricately plotted....Peter Robinson fools and entertains me with every twist.”
The novels of Peter Robinson are: “Deeply nuanced works of art.”
Reading Group Guide
1. Fire, in all its forms, is a constant presence in this book: the smell of a peat fire, the warmth of the logs crackling in the hearth in a pub, the damp chill of a house with the electric bar turned off. There are references to smoke detectors, matches, and candles. How does the author use these to foreshadow events?
2. Inspector Alan Banks is the heart of this novel, as he is at the heart of the series, over which he has changed, both in circumstance and temperament. To what extent do you think that series crime fiction is really an ongoing fictional biography?
3. Why is Banks a policeman? He seems to hold contradictory views within this book. On the one hand, he muses on his love of the actual work of policing, of “getting out there and sniffing out the lie” and on the other, he refers to it as “a heart-breaking job in a demoralizing time.” What drives him professionally? Is there anything else he would be suited to do?
4. Why is Banks so angry in this book? If you have read the other books in the series, you are familiar with the complexities of mood that define him, but in Playing With Fire, he seems angrier. Why do you think this is?
5. Music plays a big part in Banks’s life, providing him with apparent solace in times of depression or agitation. He also has extremely eclectic tastes. In this book he listens to a Beethoven string quartet, Bob Dylan, Cassandra Wilson, Tom Waits, Cesaria Evora, Bud Powell, and The Clash, to name just a few. Do you find that this imaginary soundtrack adds to your enjoyment of the book? What does it add to your understanding of Banks’s character?
6. Banks is a bit of a bust at relationships, if his experiences with his ex-wife, Sandra, and ex-lover Annie are anything to judge by. On the other hand, he seems incapable of letting either one of them go emotionally. (Goodness knows what he’s got left over for Michelle.) Yet, he’s a decent, thoughtful fellow who obviously appreciates strong and interesting women. Why can’t he make it work?
7. There are two families in Banks’s life: his ex-wife and children, and the cast of colleagues at work. The former seems to draw deeper feeling of guilt from him than the latter, but his concern and commitment to his fellow police officers is apparently of prime concern to him. He is most comfortable, it seems, with old colleagues like Dr. Glendenning or Geoff Hamilton and even former adversaries like “Dirty Dick” Burgess. Is there something in him that can only relate to others who have been through the intense experiences that are part of the job?
8. To what extent do you think his guilt about his relationship with his own son, Brian, colours Banks’s relationship to Mark Siddons? If not his son, where does this strong empathy come from?
9. Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot is another complex and interesting character with her own issues of trust, and plenty of emotional and sexual baggage from her past. How do you think she will react to the betrayal at the heart of this book? Do you think that Robinson creates a credible female character?
10. The landscape of the Dales, and of the Yorkshire towns and villages are as much a character in Robinson’s books as the rest of the characters that inhabit this particular landscape. How do you think this influences the books? If you went there, do you think you would know it better because of Robinson’s books?
11. There are traditional styles of mystery fiction, with the stereotypical British “cozy” at one end of the continuum, and the violent hard-boiled American classics on the other end. (Canadian crime writing has been called “soft-boiled,” lying somewhere between the two). Robinson has lived in Canada for close to thirty years, yet he writes about his home country. Where do you think his books fall on that continuum? Are they traditional British mysteries, or has his Canadian experience tempered his viewpoint.
12. There are different ways of reading a crime novel. For some readers, the puzzle is the most important part. Whodunit? is the question of the day: guessing the villain is of prime importance. Others are more interested in the Whydunit?, the insight into the roots of criminal behaviour. Others, still, read crime novels for the setting, the characters involved and the life journey they take us on. What type of reader are you? Do you think that Robinson’s books are more suited to one type of reader than another?
13. In Playing With Fire, the police investigation procedures are very detailed, from the autopsies, through the routines of the most basic research and interrogation on the beat level, through the specifics of arson investigation. What are other examples of the author using these details of realistic procedures, and how do these add to the overall texture of the book?
14. There are many crimes in this book, at all levels, from banal to heinous, and many forms of “justice.” The characters in the book commit or have committed, arson, murder, sexual abuse, theft, art forgery. Some were “punished,” some not. Discuss how in the end justice was done for each of these characters, or was it not done at all?
15. What do you think lies ahead for Banks? How will the events of this book change him, and the other characters you have come to know?