In a Dry Season (2000) by Peter Robinson

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.

In a dry season

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 3.25/5


  1. This was the first Banks book that I read – on an airplane, iirc. I remember really enjoying it, but it’s not the best in the series that I’ve read. And I know what you mean about not reading too many in a row – I read a few but it’s been a while now…

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  2. “I often wonder whether in modern detective novels if anyone is allowed to have more than a fleeting sense of happiness.”

    That’s the main reason I barely ever read modern mystery fiction. Interestingly though I don’t mind this sort of glum and depressing world-view in movies and TV-shows, but it really seems to bother me in literary fiction.

    For me Peter Lovesey is one of the very few modern mystery writers who get it right, since his novels while dealing with contemporary issues are still fun to read.

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  3. A few years ago – I want to say about 2004 or thereabouts – I convinced myself that I was going to like Robinson without having read any of his books and so just bought the first twelve or so and started reading. I got as far as Cold is the Grave (which, I seem to remember, comes after this one) before realising that I hadn’t really enjoyed any of them – they’re all a bit too moribund and pedestrian, well-observed but slow slow slow – and so I quit about a third of the way into CitG. Never regretted it; he’s not a bad author, but he’ll never be a great one.

    The most interesting one for me was either (and I’m possibly going to get this wrong…) Wednesday’s Child or Dry Bones that Dream. DBtD has far and away the most interesting central idea, but the exploration and development of that idea would make someone from the 1930s blanch as there’s nothoing new brought to it (you’ll spot the trick fairly quickly). WC is a more up to date exploration of a theme, and benefits from some remarkably unlikable characters to help propel it along, but falls apart come the end.

    I’d say neither is really worth your time, but then you’ll read them so quickly you’d barely notice anyway 🙂

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    • You certainly know how to bulk buy! My sister once bought 20 Michael Jeck novels from a charity shop in one go. Thankfully she likes them so that worked out well. I’m not sure how soon I will return to this series, but I’ll keep the two you mentioned in mind. Why were you so convinced you would like the series?


      • Youthful folly, mainly. Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly – of who I was a massive fan at the time – had both said very positive things about Robinson, and I took them at their word, with the net result that I’m now immensely sceptical about anything positive anyone says about anyone else ever…

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  4. I’ve read a few books by this author and I agree,they can be hard going. Without wishing to single out any one author I would say that many modern crime novels suffer from the same problems; overlong, with unlikeable characters who have a raft of personal issues that the reader is not particularly interested in (but which provide padding), and a solution which can be seen a mile off, so that the reader is left to wade through another 100 pages until they can gratefully knock the thing on the head. I suppose that’s why I love GAD fiction; those authors got in, set a puzzle, told a story and got out, all in 200 pages or so. Marvellous.

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    • Yes 200-300 pages is a good length for a book. Once it starts creeping over the 300 mark it’s usually a sign of padding. Writing a great read significantly over 300 pages in length takes a lot of skill in my opinion. I also think in modern crime novels the types of personal issues the detectives have + the introspection which goes with them, can become quite formulaic.


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