Author Peter Robinson recalls mystery-writing at York

On Feb. 17, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Peter Robinson reading from his novel Piece of My Heart.York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

To an observer looking down the peak of Brimleigh Beacon early that Monday morning, the scene below might have resembled the aftermath of a battle….The light wind carried a whiff of rotting flesh.

And over the whole scene a terrible stillness reigned.

from Piece of My Heart
by Peter Robinson

Twenty-five years after completing his PhD at York, acclaimed mystery novelist Peter Robinson (PhD ’84) returned to the scene of his early literary career. Admitting in his mild Yorkshire accent that he got somewhat lost among York’s newest buildings, Robinson revisited these times and one of his recent novels for the Canadian Writers in Person series. 

Left: Author Peter Robinson

As a doctoral student, Robinson wrote his dissertation by day and mystery fiction by night. That’s when he could "cut loose with murders, sex and fantasy. I never got much sleep." It was during these nightly sessions that his first novel Gallows View (1987) and his most famous character, Inspector Banks, began to take form. Perhaps because of this balance, he has since carved a place for himself between serious literary fiction and lighter works.  

Regarding these lighter works, Robinson revealed that he is not a fan of "whodunits". Rather, he compares his role as a writer to that of his fictional detective. When he starts writing, he has only a few clues and a vague sense of possible outcomes: "If I knew where it was going, it would be like connecting the dots, so why would I bother?" Inspector Banks is often less interested in who committed the murders than why they did them, says Robinson. Rather than conforming to a plot, the characters help develop the plot from within.    

Robinson says each book is a psychological journey that explores the motivations of its characters within the context of their times. In Piece of My Heart, Robinson explores the darker Dionysian side of "free love" in the 1960s: "When you let all the borders out, dark things creep in too." To do this, he experimented with a split narrative which shifts between two investigations: the murder of a young girl at a 1969 rock concert and the murder of a rock journalist in 2005. While Banks in the present is more understanding, the past is seen through the eyes of an investigator who is unsympathetic to the 1960s youth movement. This allowed Robinson to examine the past more objectively while mixing in contrasting motivations.

Robinson enjoyed researching each time period, examining music and concert films as well as spending some time at the offices of the classic rock magazine MOJO. Through this he created The Mad Hatters, a fictional band that draws the two storylines together. Robinson also relied on his own experiences to recreate a sense of the times. Because of this, the novel was perhaps a personal journey for both author and protagonist, reflecting the way in which our collective past informs our present. 

When asked if he would ever get sick of his Inspector Banks character, Robinson replied that he will continue as long as he can take his character places he didn’t expect to go. Like the author and his readers, Banks changes with time. Now with 21 books and almost as many awards to his credit, the young doctoral student of the past might not have imagined he could come so far between visits to York. For would-be writers inspired by his appearance, it may be the beginning of new journeys.  

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature.The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. In celebration of York’s 50th anniversary, all of this year’s writers have connections to the UniversityDebra Anderson will read from her novel Code White on March 17.