- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

THE PRICE OF LOVE AND OTHER STORIES
By Peter Robinson
Morrow, $25.99, 368 pages

THE MURDERED HOUSE
By Pierre Magnan
Minotaur, $24.99, 256 pages

Alan Banks is a good detective. He has captured murderers and solved mysteries. But he is not a happy man. Professionally he is successful in his law enforcement career. But personally he looks back on a failed marriage, grown-up children whom he rarely sees and a succession of toppled relationships. He is resigned to spending Christmas alone, viewing it resignedly as “something to be got through with liberal doses of wine and music.”

Peter Robinson, the creator of Banks, can be relied on for clever twists of plot and insight into places and people, yet “The Price of Love and Other Stories” is a patchwork quilt of a book. The reader keeps looking for Alan Banks to hold the center and he isn’t there, although he pops up in accounts of the unhappiness that lies beneath his tough professional skin. It is the kind of book you can dip into and put down, which isn’t what the reader usually expects from Banks and his supporting cast who are often missing this time around. And they are missed.

The author can and does put together sensitive short stories like the dark “The Ferryman’s Beautiful Daughter” and the sardonic “Walking the Dog.” Yet his most perceptive writing is to be found in the poignant “Going Back” in which Banks uses his parents’ golden anniversary for a reluctant return to his childhood home. It is full of relatives from whom he is estranged and he retreats to the little room where he once slept and where the books that he used to read have gathered dust. There is deep irony in Banks’ discovery that the neighbor who is so helpful running errands for his parents is robbing them. The same man is assisting those close to death in the neighborhood to achieve that goal, while adjusting their financial status to his advantage. That story dominates the book in a strange way because it calls for a continuity that isn’t provided in this hopscotch style. The reader seeks for more on Banks and doesn’t find it.

Banks reappears in the haunting “Blue Christmas” in which his modest and solitary holiday plans are shattered when he has to take on the challenge of trying to prevent a woman from killing herself. The task becomes more onerous when he realizes how much he has in common with a woman who has simply given up. They confide in each other about small intimacies like the Christmas ornament of tiny ice skates she received from her father on a day that she remembered only because it was happy. When she tells the detective that she feels “sad and lost,” he empathizes, and even suggests she spend the day with him, watching old movies.The climax of that story does not spell out a merry Christmas for Banks.

Mr. Robinson swings back to what Banks does for a living in the cynically entertaining “The Eastvale Ladies’ Poker Circle” then reverts to another weary assessment of Banks’ life in “Like a Virgin,” which is submerged in gloom. Looking back over 20 years, Banks reflects that “when he first arrived, his life had been in every bit as much of a mess as it was now. That was a sobering thought for a man in his mid fifties.”

Mr. Robinson may be gathering his forces for a reinvention of Banks’ life which happily remains a source of entertainment for readers, but in this case, the poor detective is left to dig himself out of his own depression.

•••


Pierre Magnan’s “The Murdered House” is a beautifully written book that would depress anybody. From its first page it lives up to a title and content that would do justice to Edgar Allan Poe and the fall of his House of Usher. The house is drenched in gore as its occupants have their throats cut and the only survivor of the nightmare that took place in remote Provence in the winter of 1896 is a three-week-old infant. Seraphin Monge grows up handsome, immensely strong and tall, a survivor of World War I, yet interested only in finding and killing the three men who slaughtered his family.

He is so haunted by the strangely erotic memory of his mother’s dying moments that he savagely rejects the advances of beautiful young village girls, who ironically are the children of those who murdered his family. His interim reaction is to use his immense physical strength to destroy his home stone by stone, wall by wall, and in the course of that endeavor, secrets are laid bare.

The delineation of Mr. Maganan’s characters is expertly done, as is the dark and brooding atmosphere of the village and its surroundings. It is not, as he presents it, the kind of place you might want to visit.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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