Slightly different read for me today. Not in my usual book reading comfort zone, but the initial premise of the book did intrigue me. The opening prologue set in August 1967 at Thornfield reservoir, introduces to us one of the book’s narrators, who we later find out is Vivian Elmsley. She has come back to the reservoir to reminisce, as her childhood village Hobb’s End, lies beneath it and was flooded in 1953. She looks back on her life, having been recently widowed. Though it seems like her marriage was one of convenience, as due to her husband being a diplomat it meant she could spend most of her time abroad. At this early stage we realise there is something Vivian would much rather forget in her earlier life, a trauma which has its roots in Hobb’s End during WW2. These sections of the story (as there are further flashbacks, though this time to the early 1940s) are excerpts from a manuscript Vivian wrote about her time at Hobb’s End, meaning the reader has to assess her reliability as a narrator:
‘As she started to read, she realised she wasn’t sure exactly what it was. A memoir? A novella? Certainly there was some truth in it… but because she had written it at a time in her life when she had been unclear about the blurred line between autobiography and fiction, she couldn’t be sure which was which?’
The narrative then jumps ahead to contemporary times and due to a drought the ruins of Hobb’s End are now accessible again and is a place full of magical possibility for the child Adam Kelly. Yet an unfortunate accident leads to him finding something sinister in one of the outhouses – a skeleton’s hand. This of course leads to DCI Banks and DS Cabbot being called in to investigate the case, as further digging reveals a whole skeleton, which is narrowed down to the time of Vivian’s excerpts. Vivian’s excerpts concentrate on the arrival of a new land girl called Gloria Stringer, a beautiful woman, a siren in fact, who men are drawn to and she eventually marries Vivian’s brother Matthew. Furthermore, she is a woman with a mysterious past. These excerpts also reveal Vivian’s feelings towards Gloria which evolve and change. Forensics easily reveal to the reader that the skeleton found is that of Gloria but it takes police longer to reach this conclusion. It also seems Gloria did not die naturally, having been strangled and stabbed first, which leads to us wondering what Vivian’s dark secret is.
Of course the investigators have their usual plethora of personal and work related problems, with a wide range of issues being dispersed between a few characters. I often wonder whether in modern detective novels if anyone is allowed to have more than a fleeting sense of happiness. The narrative also switches to Vivian in the modern day and she is the writer of a detective series of her own. Although it seems that the uncovering of Gloria’s body is not her only problem as she is receiving sinister phone calls, hinting at her past. In some way this case for Vivian is like waiting for a bomb to go off. Both police interviews with the few remaining Hobb’s End inhabitants and excerpts from Vivian hint at Gloria having extra-marital dalliances. Initially Vivian records these ambiguously, unsure of how willing Gloria was, but later on once Matthew has gone missing and then returned a broken man from a Japanese POW camp, this ambiguity lifts. A nearby American air base means Gloria has a number of men to choose from.
As the novel progresses further pieces of evidence appear showing month by month Gloria’s continued existence. But when will the evidence stop? And how much truth will be shed on Gloria’s final end? What will the consequences be for the remaining living characters involved? Old sins definitely cast very long shadows in this novel, with the events of the 1940s bearing fruit in the present day.
Personally I feel flashback novels are always hard to do very well, as the reader is often placed in the position of knowing more than the modern day detectives. Though to be fair to Robinson he does at times juxtapose the modern day evidence with the excerpts by Vivian, meaning the reader realises that neither one is wholly the truth and that further revelations are to follow. In a Dry Season ends in a troubling way, which I did find interesting as justice is only partial and even then it does not seem to bring peace. The characterisation of Gloria and Vivian were particularly notable as they are both morally ambiguous characters in different ways and neither of them comfortably fits traditional gender roles. Furthermore, the way Banks and Cabbot go about unravelling the mystery after all that time was good on the whole. I’m not sure I could read a lot of these novels in one go for two reasons. Firstly I think I would find the pervading depressing atmosphere of the novels wearing and to be honest a bit boring, with every character having a host of personal issues (which can become quite predictable), leading to the protagonists introspecting every other page. Secondly the book was unnecessarily long (500 pages), which meant that the interesting initial premise got swallowed up by padding and it got stretched over too many pages, making the pace feel quite slow.