Peter Robinson reveals the real life Yorkshire locations of Inspector Banks
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Bestselling crime writer and author of the Inspector Banks series Peter Robinson, tells Tony Greenway why Yorkshire is a thriller of a location for his police detective hero.
Peter Robinson has bumped off quite a few people in the Yorkshire Dales. Not literally, you understand, only in print. As the best-selling author of the Inspector Banks novels — his award-winning Yorkshire-set crime series — he makes sure a dead body turns up sooner rather than later. To be fair, you’re not going to get Robinson’s books mixed up with ‘Midsomer Murders’, where there’s a grisly death every five minutes. But we’re not exactly in warm and cuddly Heartbeat territory here, either.
In Banks’s world, it seems that Yorkshire is a dangerous place to be. ‘I’ve thought about that,’ murmurs Robinson. ‘I’ve heard people say that Colin Dexter — the author of Morse — had murdered the entire population of Oxford in his novels, and that I’ve killed the entire population of the Yorkshire Dales in mine. But I don’t have a lot of killings in my books. If I write a book a year and there are maybe one or two murders in it, I’d say that’s pretty standard for North Yorkshire.’
When a corpse is discovered and a case is opened, Robinson’s hero, Detective Inspector Alan Banks, is called in to investigate. To date, 23 Banks novels and a couple of volumes of short stories have been published across the world, winning both acclaim from critics and numerous crime fiction awards. The latest adventure, When the Music’s Over, was published in the summer and immediately topped the bestseller list while the character has also made a successful transition to television in a series called DCI Banks, starring Stephen Tompkinson, which has become an award-winning ratings hit for ITV.
Robinson is always either working out a story in his head or is busy putting it down on paper, which means there’s roughly a new Banks novel every year (although he does write standalone, Banks-free books, too). So how has the character changed since his debut in 1987? ‘He’s older!’ says Robinson, who was born in Armley, Leeds 66 years ago. ‘And he’s been promoted to Detective Superintendent in this latest one. No-one ever though that would happen.’
In the early days, admits Robinson, the Banks character was very “unformed”. ‘I didn’t have a grasp on what sort of person he was,’ he says. ‘I had a few ideas: his love of music, his marital situation, etc. As time has gone on — and as he has dealt with some of the darker sides of human nature — he has changed and I’ve found out more about him in much the same way you get to know a friend. You don’t know what they’re really like at first, but the more you meet them, the more you talk with them, the more time you spend with them, the more you discover about them.’ Robinson likes Banks. In fact, he likes all his main characters. ‘The ones that keep recurring, at any rate,’ he says. ‘And if I find that I don’t take to a new member of the team, well... they can be transferred — or murdered.’ Which is handy.
On TV, Tompkinson doesn’t really fit the description of the Banks from the books, but Robinson is a fan nevertheless. ‘Stephen is the onscreen character,’ he says. ‘He knows him — and he’s good.’ Yet an author invariably has to make compromises when his creation transfers to the big or small screen, and Robinson is no exception. ‘When they were adapting my books for TV — which they’ve stopped doing now – I got to see the scripts a day or so before they started filming. But that wasn’t for my input. That was for politeness.’
Which means he can’t say to the producers ‘the character wouldn’t do that’ if he notices something he disagrees with in the screen treatments. ‘Well, I could say it,’ he says brightly. ‘But it wouldn’t make any difference! There have been a couple of times when I’ve thought Banks wouldn’t react that way or say that and I’ve mentioned it to them. Luckily Stephen has said that same thing, so they’ve changed it. But that was more because he said so than because I said so! They don’t really want the writer around interfering with things. Having said that, Left Bank Pictures (the production company that makes the show) has been very good to me. I’ve been on set several times and I’m going down to London tomorrow for a screening of the last few episodes of the latest series. I can’t fault them at all.’
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After completing a BA honours degree in English literature at the University of Leeds, Robinson went to the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada for an MA in English and creative writing, and then studied a PhD in Toronto. ‘I was writing a dissertation in very academic prose on contemporary British poetry,’ he remembers. ‘So at night I let my hair down by working on a crime novel, which is a completely different kind of writing; much more liberating.’
He chose to set his story in Yorkshire partly because being in Canada made him feel homesick, and ‘it was a way of keeping me in touch when I was a long way away.’ He still has a connection to Canada, dividing his time between homes in Toronto and Richmond in North Yorkshire. ‘The weather is a factor for us, quite honestly,’ he says. ‘In Toronto the weather can be pretty bad, but at least they know how to deal with snow.’
When he completed his first Banks book — A Dedicated Man — he sent a couple of sample chapters and a plot summary to a crime fiction publisher. ‘By the time I heard that they liked it and wanted the whole manuscript, I’d finished my second Banks novel, Gallows View. So I sent them that, too. When I met them they said: “Do you mind if we publish Gallows View first? It’s got more sex and violence in it. It will make more of a splashy beginning”. When you’ve just heard you’re going to get published you say: “Sure!”’
Robinson is a sucker for crime stories, particularly Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels and Raymond Chandler’s pacey Philip Marlowe detective thrillers. As a writer, he would never try to imitate Simenon or Chandler he says (copying Chandler’s style would sound like a pastiche, anyway), but thinks there’s a little bit of Maigret in Banks. ‘I don’t try to imitate Maigret. But he’s a cop like Banks and he can relate to most other people. He’s interested and curious about them and Banks has a lot of those qualities, too.’ Robinson also points to PD James and Ruth Rendell as influences.
Yorkshire has always informed his writing. ‘My father was a photographer called Clifford Robinson,’ he says. ‘In fact he probably had plenty of his pictures published in Yorkshire Life. He used to take me into the Yorkshire Dales and wait for the right light. I’d wait with him, read books and take in the landscape. So my love of Yorkshire goes back to my childhood and teenage years. I decided that I wanted to set my books there as it was the place I felt most strongly about.’
Except, as fans will know, Inspector Banks’s Yorkshire is a tantalising concoction of the real and the imagined. He operates out of the made-up town of Eastvale, which is a blend of Richmond and Ripon. The surrounding countryside is based on several dales, particularly Wensleydale and Swaledale while, for example, the fictional towns of Helmthorpe and Gratly are based on Hawes and Gayle. ‘I do mix it up, so Banks will go to Leeds and York, too,’ says Robinson. ‘But I decided early on to invent my own dale and Eastvale, which gives me the freedom to import bits of various dales that inspire me in some way. I can mess around with the geography and distances. It makes life a bit easier.’
Coming back from Canada, he is frequently amazed at the changes to his hometown of Leeds. ‘We go to Leeds quite often and I still like it as a city, although I don’t think I’d want to live there. When I was growing up there, it wasn’t much of a place. Now it has really come into its own — and really trendy.’
When Robinson is back in UK, he can’t imagine basing himself anywhere other than Yorkshire. ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind living by the sea,’ he says, ‘but Yorkshire has a lovely coast if I ever wanted to move out there. I don’t know that I could handle a very remote, small village, though. For one thing, I don’t drive, so I’d never be able to get very far. And I like the pace of life in Richmond. I can walk to the supermarket, pub and restaurants. And it’s a beautiful view. We look out over Richmond Castle and the hills beyond — and I never get tired of that.’ Case closed.
When the Music’s Over is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton.