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by Peter Robinson
McClelland & Stewart, June 2009
328 pages
$32.99 CAD
ISBN: 0771075448

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Peter Robinson introduces this collection of short stories with the confession that he finds short stories very difficult to write. Though of course it's nowhere near as hard, I usually find short story collections difficult to review. The stories often have little relation to one another and frequently vary widely in quality. But not this time around. THE PRICE OF LOVE is a coherent piece of work, even though some of the stories are about Alan Banks and some are not; some are set in Britain, some in Toronto, some in the present, and a few (and those among the best) in the past. But all of them are the work of an accomplished and thoughtful practitioner of his craft and there really isn't a clunker among them.

To begin at the end, the collection concludes with a previously unpublished novella, a look back at Alan Banks in the earlier days of his career, when he was still in London and dealing with a case that would finally nudge him into heading north to Yorkshire and to what he hopes will be better days. Longtime followers of his career will know that his hopes, if not dashed, were not altogether fulfilled, but what we see here is a Banks who is still able to imagine somehow combining his life as a policeman with a more rounded, humane way of living a way as a father and a husband. Told from the point of view of the middle-aged Banks looking back at both the case and himself with mixed emotions, it is an affecting piece of work.

There's a different kind of retrospective in The Cherub Affair, a short story Robinson, newly resident in Toronto, wrote while on sabbatical and awaiting news of the fate of the first two Banks novels. This is a noir private eye tale, fashioned from a novel he wrote but never published given the success of his Yorkshire cop. But it is fascinating to speculate about what sort of books Robinson might have written if he had ever fully adopted Canada as a literary venue.

Walking the Dog is also set in Toronto and first appeared in TORONTO NOIR (no, that is not an oxymoron), while The Ferryman's Beautiful Daughter appears set on the West Coast of Canada. Birthday Dance, a slightly grisly number, seems to be situated south of the US border. They are all effective short stories, but to my mind, Robinson feels more at home in the Yorkshire of his imagination than in North America. Or maybe it's merely that he knows Alan Banks so well by now that he can relax just a little bit.

The story that most impressed me, however, was set not in Canada or Yorkshire, but in France on the night before the attack at Passchaendele. In Shadows on the Water, a group of soldiers, perhaps Canadians, are hunkered down in a trench awaiting orders to go over the top. To distract themselves from their fears, they listen as one of their number tells a horrifying story about something that happened to him when he was a child. The story-teller is a bit older than the others and has a reputation for a kind of reckless, mad fearlessness that had seen him unscathed through Ypres one and two. No one can quite figure out what drives him but at the end his story, we do understand. Though one of the briefest stories in the book, Shadows on the Water is in some ways the most memorable for what it has to say about notions of heroism, cowardice, and masculinity.

At the end of the volume, Peter Robinson has helpfully appended notes to each story that explain how he came to write it. Almost all of them came into being as a commission to be included in a one thematic collection or another. Some might expect that they would lack commitment or engagement for this reason, but this is far from the case. On the contrary, Robinson has seen the commissions as challenges that might lead him in unexpected directions, directions the reader will be happy to follow. All in all, this is a splendid collection, one that the reader can dip into just about anyway in the confident expectation of finding something to entertain or promote reflection.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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