Fire—It consumes futures and pasts in aterrified heartbeat, devouring damning secrets while leaving even greater mysteries in the ashes.
The night sky is ablaze as flames engulf two barges moored side by side on an otherwise empty canal. On board are the blackened remains of two human beings. To the seasoned eye, this horror was no accident, the method so cruel and calculated that only the worst sort of fiend could have committed it. There are shocking secrets to be uncovered in the charred wreckage, grim evidence of lethal greed and twisted hunger, and of nightmare occurrences within the private confines of family. A terrible feeling is driving police inspector Alan Banks in his desperate hunt for answers—an unshakable fear that this killer's work will not be done until Banks's own world is burned to the ground.
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One of the principle pleasures to be found in reading any of Peter Robinson's more recent British suspense novels is to see how dexterously this author uses seemingly small, confined crimes to wedge open much larger troves of hidden or historical chicanery. In Playing with Fire, the plot catalyst is a blaze that consumes two rotting barges moored in a Yorkshire canal, killing their squatter inhabitants--Tina Aspern, a pretty, teenage heroin abuser, and Thomas McMahon, a once-promising but "derivative" landscape painter who'd fallen on hard times. Accident or arson? The best suspects, in either event, may be Tina’s cheating boyfriend, Mark Siddons, and a rumored peeping tom who'd taken his time--and more--reporting the conflagration. However, as Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his colleague and ex-lover, Annie Cabbot (both last seen in Close to Home), gather together the disparate threads of this case, new questions arise, suggesting that the inferno was intended to cover up still worse misdeeds. Why, for instance, had McMahon been buying old books and prints from an Eastvale antiquarian dealer? Is it true, as an angry Siddons alleges, that Tina had turned to drugs in order to blot out the pain of her stepfather's carnal advances? And what tie, if any, is there between these boat burnings and the subsequent torching of a trailer home occupied by a "quiet bloke," who perished while in possession of an unknown and potentially valuable J.M.W. Turner watercolor?
As attentive as Robinson is to plot progression, spicing up his narrative with arcane knowledge about fire accelerants and competition in the painting biz ("The art world's brutal," Banks is warned early on in this story), he doesn't forget that a substantial part of the attraction of this series derives from its two evolving main characters. The contemplative, jazz-loving Banks, worried by the superficiality of his latest relationship, with a "wounded" fellow cop, finds himself increasingly jealous here of Annie's suave new boyfriend, an art researcher whose past may be short a few brushstrokes. At the same time, Annie is drawn hesitantly closer again to Banks by tragic circumstances. Although Robinson's subplot about Tina's sexual violation concludes in a rather B-movieish way, Playing with Fire is redeemed by its scorching climax and suggestively ragged denouement. Peter Robinson, together with Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill, and others, is reinvigorating the British police procedural. --J. Kingston PierceFrom the Inside Flap:
When the bodies of two squatters are found in the burning remains of a couple of derelict barges, Inspector Alan Banks has to wonder whether one of their occupations caused their deaths. One victim was a local artist, with plenty of turpentine and oil paint at hand; the other was a young woman, a junkie, who evidently shot up her final fix just before the fire started. But if the fire was an accident, why did her boyfriend bolt from the scene when the police arrived? And why did the neighbour who discovered the fire not call it in right away?
As they start their investigation, Banks and his colleague (and former lover), DI Annie Cabbot, find more than enough motives for murder – and more than one person with a reason to kill. Worse, one of the two detectives themselves discovers firsthand the seductive thrill and terrible danger of playing with fire.
In his fourteenth Inspector Banks mystery, Peter Robinson once more displays his extraordinary skill in creating memorable characters, a haunting narrative, and a subtly unveiled plot, a talent that has made him one of the best writers of crime fiction in the world today.
From the Hardcover edition.
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