Playing with Fire is that rare beast; a Peter Robinson novel that hasn't had its titled bashed about for North American markets, which is rather refreshing. And, of course, considering that title, it is full of fire, destruction, conflagration (physical and emotional) as well a new burning power in the writing itself too, which makes the book possibly Robinson's strongest, most cunning plotted mystery yet, if perhaps not the most "meaningful" or innovative.
It begins, of course, with flame. In the wee hours of a cold January morning (the chill of the climate and atmosphere is a brilliantly effective contrast to the searing fires of the plot) two narrow-boats are found burning on a lonely stretch of a Yorkshire canal. When the fire-fighters have done their work, the investigators move in, and two dead bodies are found in the remains, blackened and burnt. And, of course, in the best traditions of the murder-mystery, traces of accelerant are found.
However, which was the intended victim? Tina, the drugged out young girl living with her boyfriend on one boat, or Tom, the lonely, seemingly reclusive artist who lived on the other? As Robinson's well-seasoned protagonist Chief Inspector Banks sets the investigations in motion, the threads tangle and the case proves to be every bit as complex as it promised at the start. And this particular twisted firestarter is not done yet...
Peter Robinson is remarkable; with every single book for about 6 years, he has been continuing to expand his series, smashing down boundaries, reaching new heights with every single book. While once his reflective Inspector Banks novels were simply nice little procedurals to while away an evening, lately they have become something far more remarkable, and he has moved into the front rank of male crime writers, alongside Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly in writing moving, artful crime novels that shed light on all aspects of human experience. There are so many things to recommend him, not least his evocation of landscape and ability to probe the very human depths of every single characters instinctive motivations. He plots as if he were born to the genre, and his protagonist Banks is a true marvel. Less of a tough-as-nails guy than Bosch or Rebus, Banks is thoughtful, moral, reflective and, dare I say it, not startlingly interesting on the surface (but, of course, therein lies his shining humanity) and in Playing with Fire there are enough personal trials for him to deal with to satisfy any connoisseur of fascinating protagonists. The other human aspects of this book are incredibly well-done; moving and expansive, Robinson reaches out to all his characters, taking them gently by the hand and leading them to the reader, in sometimes shocking ways.
The cracking, multi-faced plot is in itself engaging and clever, with surprises and shifts in tone and pitch that elevate it far above the average, the only thing that lets this novel down is it's slightly annoying solution - though this may well just be down to personal taste. Otherwise, this is a 14th excellent Banks novel from Peter Robinson.