This is the 23rd Alan Banks mystery novel, but is anyone still counting? It’s an ever-popular series that won’t let readers down, and this latest episode tackles some very contemporary issues.
Banks, newly promoted to Detective Superintendent, is called on to head up an investigation into historic sex abuse thrown up by Operation Yewtree. Danny Caxton, a late 50s pop idol turned TV compere, and presenter of a popular talent-spotting programme, has come to the attention of the National Crime Agency [NCA]. A witness has come forward claiming that in the summer of 1967 she was raped by Caxton and one of his assistants while she was 14 and on holiday in Blackpool. When she returned home to Leeds after the holiday she plucked up the courage to tell her mother and together they reported the incident to the police. The police supposedly investigated her allegations but then apparently swept it under the station’s carpet.
Now in her early 50s Linda Palmer is a nationally renowned poet and lives near Eastvale. She has repeated her allegations against Caxton to Childline and has persuaded the NCA and the Crown Prosecution Service [CPS] that she will make a credible witness. Despite his initial doubts about proceeding with a historic case like this; Banks interviews Ms Palmer and is soon won over by her account, and her charms. So is Caxton guilty? And how will Banks prove his guilt?
But that is only half the story. Simultaneously, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot is confronted by a more contemporary version of sexual abuse of young girls. A young girl has been found dead on a country road outside Eastvale. She is naked and the evidence suggests she has been sexually assaulted prior to being thrown out of a vehicle leaving her with a broken hip. The girl managed to make her way along the road looking for help before being approached by another vehicle. Instead of helping the girl, the driver had subjected her to a brutal and fatal beating. Cabbot’s team manage to identify the girl and trace her to a neglected and impoverished part of Teesside and a caring but also ineffective home background. Along with a number of otheryoung girls from the area, the victim has been groomed by local British-Pakistani males for sexual exploitation. But the questions that remains, is who administered the final beating?
What Peter Robinson presents in When the Music’s Over is almost a social commentary on sexual mores in Britain over the last 50 years from the Summer of Love in 1967 to the Summer of Brexit. Whilst the sexual abuse of young girls is a serious concern wherever and whenever it occurs, Robinson cleverly and sensitively illustrates how our public perceptions have changed. In the Summer of Love, in which Linda Palmer was raped, sex was exciting and relatively new, wrapped up in a counterculture of music and drugs and a rejection of parental values – a blending of Dylan’s Times They are a Changing and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. Now all the psychedelic colours have been bleached out of that picture. As Cabbott finds in her investigation; and today’s victims are more likely to be from poor, impoverished and struggling families, unemployment, drugs and abuse have become almost the norm of life on the other side of the Neo-Liberal tracks. Can you blame the victims if the blandishments of the groomers appear like the attraction of rock stars to the 60’s groupies? As one of the groomed girls tells it:
“They always said how we were always welcome to everything they’d given us, and kept on giving us – drinks, food, free taxi rides, jewellery sometimes mobiles, top-ups, and later some coke and phets and weed. Even money. None of us had, like, jobs, or parents that had any money to give us. Maybe we felt what we did, you know, was like a way of paying for it, doing a favour for a friend. I mean men wanting sex with me was no big deal. They’ve been doing it since I was twelve, including my first foster father and my stepbrother. I didn’t get a chance to say no to them and they didn’t even pay me for it.”
None of that excuses the groomers and the manner in which they exploit the girls, as Annie Cabbott makes plain on several occasions in the book. But all the various issues are treated sensitively and without any reduction to trite sociology. For that Peter Robinson deserves our thanks and appreciation.
So what’s the problem? To my mind it is two-fold. It took some courage for Robinson to address this topic. Nevertheless, the subject matter could have made for a much better book, maybe even the exceptional book I am still looking for from him. The social commentary is excellent but all too often seems detached from the narrative. Additionally, the main characters, especially Banks seem too neutral without any real emotional attachment to the issues, as if they find them too intimidating. Only Cabbott, in the odd flash of temper, rises above that charge. Ironically my second criticism runs totally counter to a criticism I made of Abattoir Blues, the preceding Banks story in which I felt the conclusion was too drawn out and too late in coming. By contrast, in this latest adventure the author zips through the conclusion at breakneck speed, the evidence materialises and falls into place with perhaps too much ease, and the net effect is shallow with too little surprise or excitement.
Despite my disappointments, When the Music’s Over is brim full of promises, focussing on very contemporary issues which are examined with stealth and sensitivity. I won’t be at all surprised to see it jump into the bestsellers very rapidly.