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a dedicated man

18 june 2013

Early in A Dedicated Man, Peter Robinson's narrator discusses two characters, father and daughter, that we've just barely met:

He delivered the most outrageous statements and opinons about her interests and dreams in such a deliberately deadpan voice that anyone could be excused for not catching the gentle, mocking humour behind them. If he had been less sarcastic and his daughter less self-centred, they might have realized that they loved each other very much. (10)
There couldn't be a clearer example of what writing teachers call "telling, not showing." And such constant telling is one of several flaws that mar an otherwise intelligent and skillfully constructed mystery novel with a sharply-drawn setting and original characters. Whenever he has the chance to spare himself a scene that shows us things, in favor of summing them up in a few bland sentences that don't even save much time, Robinson takes the opportunity. The result is material that too often sounds like a second-hand summary of somebody else's crime novel.

Another flaw is the skillfully-constructed mystery itself. Robinson's first "Inspector Banks" novel, Gallows View, has the small-town setting, the old dears, the grasping shopkeepers, the publicans and drunks of many an English "cosy"; but its crimes and criminals are believably observed slices of human nature gone bad. In A Dedicated man, however, the scene shifts a little from small-town Eastvale to tiny-village Helmthorpe and even-tinier-hamlet Gratly. In these minuscule places, there are scarcely enough characters to get up a hand of bridge, let alone provide much obfuscation for murder most foul. When a mild-mannered archeologist is found murdered and stashed beneath a section of drystone wall, the possible suspects are a knot of his local friends, all of whom seem to have been plucked from a random chapter of a Margaret Drabble novel. They have connections that go back to university and school, to those carefree English pasts somehow vaguely tied up with unthinkable things like sex and marijuana, which they've all long outgrown. One of our crew must be the murderer, and Banks sets about Poirot-like questioning of them till the case cracks.

Not a bad book, as I said; I finished it; I enjoyed the vicarious tour of Yorkshire, deep with historical memory, that it provided. But as a crime novel, it only confirms Raymond Chandler's blistering observation that "the English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers."

Robinson, Peter. A Dedicated Man. 1988. London: Pan [Macmillan], 2012.

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