Robinson plunges us into another adventure featuring DCI Banks, one infused with a large number of red-herrings and a case that at every turn lacks any hard evidence. Called by DS Winsome Jackman to a suspicious death at a disused and remote railway track, Banks finds himself at an isolated stretch just south of the village of Coverton at the tip of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Here lies the crumpled body of an emaciated, haggard, broken-down old man wearing a gray anorak and blue jeans. Lying on his back, the man’s neck lies at an impossible angle.
From the outset, Banks is positive the case is not suicide—but he can’t fathom why someone would want to kill a man who seemed to have no enemies. What was he doing so far from his front door of Newhope Cottage? Gavin Miller is soon to be revealed as an exiled, disgraced academic, an individual who had not quite fulfilled his potential—or hadn’t as much potential to fulfill as he thought he did. Stuck in the interests and tastes of his youth, Miller lived alone and was doing little to stop the chronic decay of a life that was slowly rotting around him.
The motive behind Gavin’s sudden death proves as difficult as finding his killer. Even Banks's keen intuition is put to the test in unraveling the whys and wherefores of this case. As Area Commander Gervaise suggests to Banks the notion of retirement, the impassioned detective plunges further into the complex and inextricable riddle of Miller’s demise. A fairly typical archetype: a disillusioned cop right on the edge of reason, and with a penchant for good food and wine. Robinson continues to imbue Banks with just the right mix of integrity and volatility. We never know quite which way he's going to go in a case where the evidence is nothing more than a tangle of circumstance, contradiction, and coincidence.
From a local Eastvale drug dealer to a college crowd that seems alright (as long as they don’t disturb “the landed gentry”), the investigation offers up a number of suspects, none of whom really stand out, while the ones that do have flimsy alibis and no forensics to back up their guilt. The team focuses on former students Beth Gallagher and Kayleigh Vernon, and on Miller’s former university colleagues, Trevor Lomax and Jim Cooper, who worked with Miller. But none of these individuals have a strong motive for his murder. Meanwhile, local bad-girl drug dealer Lisa Gray tells Winsome that Gavin was nostalgic about old times, haunted as if he were searching for his lost youth.
As the days roll by and no one on the team (including the normally feisty Annie Cabot) seems to be much the wiser, Banks begins to feel a kinship with the victim, “this emaciated, out of shape, and unattractive man in the late middle-age,” a kinship in part defined by their closeness in age and musical interests. Banks is a detective that uses his instinct to solve the troubling murders on his patch, an instinct he puts into play when he’s called to the house of well-to-do Lady Veronica Chalmers. Banks is convinced that this so-called pillar of the community and a popular writer of romance novels is lying about a telephone call that Miller made to her several days previously.
Banks is positive Lady Chalmers is not telling the whole truth—there’s something bothered and brittle about her responses: “she’s a fragile eggshell that would crack if you prodded it too hard.” Lady Chalmers may well be a fibber and hiding something, but the two girls, Beth and Kayleigh, are definitely the expert manipulators. There’s also an old lover who once had ties to the Communist Party and, like Lady Chalmers, has long since abandoned his once youthful revolutionary enthusiasm. All of the suspects’ confessionals lead Banks and the team to acknowledge that several of the major key players are hiding long-buried secrets and private animosities that could be linked to the case.
While Robinson’s narrative tends to move slowly, the tension comes from the steady pacing of the investigation and the series of interviews conducted by Banks, Winsome, Annie and Gerry Masterson, where the unfurling of a counterculture revolution forty years ago has led to nothing. While there’s not that much for Annie to do, it is Banks who proves to be on the case. Haunted by Miller and hijacked by the upper echelons of police bureaucracy, the investigation into Gavin’s death is like a personal mission for him. In the end, some of the major revelations aren't incredibly surprising, but it's a journey definitely worth taking with Banks exuding an easy compassion, obsessed with claiming justice for Daniel at any cost.