In­spec­tor nav­i­gates wind­ing al­leys of Es­to­nia

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - CH­ERYL PARKER

Throw­ing bor­ders wide open to crime as well as to le­git­i­mate trade and mi­gra­tion was one not-sow­el­come spinoff when the Euro­pean Union was es­tab­lished in 1993. Sev­eral re­cent nov­els have fo­cused on the plight of im­pov­er­ished East Euro­peans seek­ing what they think is a “paradise” in richer coun­tries such as Eng­land, but au­thor Peter Robin­son takes the sto­ry­line fur­ther by go­ing deep into the heart of Es­to­nia with his 20th De­tec­tive Chief In­spec­tor Alan Banks novel, Watch­ing the Dark.

Es­to­ni­ans aren’t big play­ers on the euro crime scene but their Baltic coun­try is de­scribed as “a sta­tion on the way” for traf­fick­ing, of both hu­mans and drugs.

“We are not Al­ba­nia or Ro­ma­nia,” ex­plains one re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer. “Traf­fic passes through here to Eng­land and Fin­land and Swe­den from the east, from the south. Drugs. Peo­ple. Girls. Il­le­gal im­mi­grants.”

The story be­gins in the near idyl­lic set­ting of a po­lice of­fi­cers’ con­va­les­cent and treat­ment cen­tre in York­shire, quickly shat­tered by the murder by cross­bow of De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Bill Quinn. Com­pro­mis­ing pho­tos found in Quinn’s room lead Banks to be­lieve he was be­ing black­mailed.

In con­trast to the al­most spa-like treat­ment cen­tre, the body of Mihkel Lepik­son, an Es­to­nian jour­nal­ist, is found in squalor at Garskill Farm, where un­skilled mi­grant work­ers live in ap­palling con­di­tions: one toi­let for 20 peo­ple; a cold-wa­ter shower that barely worked; filthy drink­ing wa­ter; no cook­ing fa­cil­i­ties; men and women, cou­ples and sin­gles, jammed to­gether. For this, they were charged weekly rent of 60 eu­ros ($74 Cdn) plus the money they owed for their trans­port to Eng­land and to pay a bro­ker to get them a job pay­ing less than min­i­mum wage to clean out pig sties or work in fac­to­ries. En­ter loan shark War­ren Cor­ri­gan, a thor­oughly vile man.

Lepik­son had gone un­der­cover to write about the cor­rup­tion in­volved in the mi­grant job mar­ket, and one of his last sur­rep­ti­tious phone calls was to Quinn, who was in­ves­ti­gat­ing Cor­ri­gan’s schemes.

Banks quickly links both mur­ders to the dis­ap­pear- ance of Rachel He­witt, then 19, dur­ing a girls’ week­end in Tallinn six years ear­lier. Quinn be­came a “a haunted man” fol­low­ing his in­abil­ity to find her and Lepik­son wrote about the case.

While Banks wel­comes the re­turn of De­tec­tive In­spec­tor An­nie Cab­bot, left cling­ing to life af­ter be­ing shot in Robin­son’s last Banks novel, Bad Boy, his hack­les im­me­di­ately rise at the ap­pear­ance of In­spec­tor Joanna Passero from the pro­fes­sional stan­dards unit, a.k.a. the “rat squad.” She’s been brought on board to in­ves­ti­gate whether Quinn was a dirty cop.

Banks can’t help think­ing Quinn was mur­dered be­cause he found out what hap­pened to He­witt, not be­cause of the pho­tos or the loan shark busi­ness.

When his su­pe­rior of­fi­cer forces Banks to in­volve Passero in the case, he lets his “nasty and mean” self come out un­til the con­flict be­comes too much for both of them and they try to join forces over a can­dle­light din­ner and then to see if she has the mak­ings of a good homi­cide de­tec­tive. The an­swer is yes and per­haps there’s a fore­shad­ow­ing of a new ro­man­tic in­ter­est.

Robin­son has drawn on a week he spent teach­ing in Es­to­nia one sum­mer for evoca­tive de­scrip­tions of Tallinn’s Old Town and the Es­to­nian coun­try­side and cred­its his students for their con­tri­bu­tions to the novel.

The au­thor, who was re­cently at the Fes­ti­val of the Writ­ten Arts in Sechelt, is equally adept at de­scrib­ing the dales in York­shire, with phrases such as “A curlew’s sad call drifted from the dis­tant moors” tak­ing the reader deep into the set­ting. You can feel the chill, the dank­ness, the smells and the des­per­a­tion as Banks moves about Patarei, a for­mer Es­to­nian prison that’s now a tourist at­trac­tion.

Watch­ing the Dark is not Robin­son’s most cre­ative book, but fans of the crime genre will be sat­is­fied with an­other good read.

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