Saturday, February 11, 2012

Grumpy in Yorkshire

Why are British mysteries so grim? I'm contemplating this question because I just finished Peter Robinson's All the Colors of Darkness and I came away depressed and dissatisfied.

Not that the title didn't give me a clue to the tone -- obviously, this was not going to be tea and fairy cakes. I know Robinson's Inspector Banks better than that, anyway, or I feel I do. I know what happened to his brother and his best mate from grammar school. I know he had a relationship with his old partner, now Detective Inspector, Annie Cabot, that didn't work out. I even remember way back when his marriage broke up. I know that Robinson takes him to some disturbing places, sometimes places I'm not willing to go (usually involving serial killers, as in Friend of the Devil).

In this installment, the local theater is working on a performance of Othello, and Banks and Cabot are working on what appears to be a couples' murder-suicide. It's no great challenge to connect those dots, but why is the secret service involved?

Why indeed? Ultimately, the pieces fit together rather loosely, but they allow Robinson to make the point that these semi-military secret police are virtually all powerful and all too callous about collateral damage. I agree. If anything, this point is even more important in the U.S., as Congress strips away civil rights with the so-called Patriot Act and now the National Defense Authorization Act (which allows American citizens to be detained indefinitely without trial). I'm all for exposing the institutional bad guys.

As a reader, though, I like to have a moral center to the fictional universe, a touchstone for my own outrage, a reason for optimism, or at least a solid spot to stand in the mire. Here, the closest thing to real understanding is expressed by, of all people, "Dirty Dick" Burgess, the embodiment of amorality in Banks's world. (One other solid spot is Annie Cabot's absolute and unquestioned loyalty to Banks, against the dictates of careerism and self-interest.) The resolution of the plot leaves Banks in a state of moral, legal and ethical ambiguity, and left me feeling manipulated and dissatisfied.

What feels most true in All the Colors of Darkness is the aftermath of a random terrorist attack witnessed by Banks. Although Banks's state of mind is a merciful numbness, the details he observes are sadly, brilliantly, poignantly human. It is that feeling of shared humanness that saves us at times of public tragedy, knowing that we are all part of the pain, the sorrow, the grace and the courage. This is what Shakespeare knew, and this is why even his tragedies have other colors, light as well as darkness.

And that brings me back to my original question: why so grim? To be continued....

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