Inspector navigates winding alleys of Estonia
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.