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Caedmon's Song is a 1990 novel by Inspector Banks creator Peter Robinson. Unlike most of Robinson's books, it does not feature Banks, but is a gentle psychological thriller that combines Robinson's love of his native Yorkshire with the darker side of human nature. It was actually written before many of the Banks novels, but was unpublished in the UK until fairly recently. I picked it up because I was interested to see whether Robinson could write an interesting novel which didn't feature his most famous creation.
Kirsten, a young student is brutally attacked on the eve of her graduation from university and wakes up in hospital with horrific wounds, unable to recall the specific details of the attack she has suffered. Meanwhile, Martha arrives in the seaside town of Whitby, supposedly to do some research for a book. Her real reason for being there, however, is far darker and much more personal.
In many ways, the background to Caedmon's Song is very similar to that of the Inspector Banks novels and the tone of the book will be instantly familiar to fans of that series. Both are set in the Yorkshire of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Unlike many thrillers (which emphasise the need for action over the need for atmosphere), Robinson focuses on people and places. Caedmon's Song has a gentle, almost old-fashioned feel. The seaside resorts and villages he describes feel like they are from a time gone by. Indeed, there is a certain wistful, nostalgic air to the book, as though Robinson is describing something that has regrettably been lost. In some slightly indefinable way, this nostalgic, romanticised view of the past really adds to the book, its gentle tone contrasting with some of the darker elements of the plot.
Caedmon's Song is an incredibly addictive book. It's one of those titles you could easily see yourself reading in a single day because you enjoy it so much. It has the same gentle pace as the Inspector Banks novels and the same readable style. There's nothing in it that's particularly innovative or clever; it's just a well-written, well-told story that will hold a deep appeal for a wide range of readers.
The book switches between the two main characters on a regular basis with chapters alternating so that one chapter follows the progress of Kirsten's recover, whilst the next focuses on Martha's mission in Whitby. This helps to keep the book fresh, as the regular movement between the two means boredom with one character never has chance to kick in.
Some of the plot elements are certainly fairly easy to work out. There's one major revelation which comes out gradually for example, which I had worked out very early on (I'll not tell you what to avoid spoiling it). However, for every element that is quite predictable, there are a plenty of others which are not quite so obvious. It's irrelevant anyway because even if you do guess what is going to happen, you still want to read on to find out if you are right.
Robinson has one of those very readable styles that is actually quite deceptive. You seem to have been reading Caedmon's Song for ages without a great deal obvious happening. Yet you find yourself addicted to it, despite the apparent lack of progress. As you read further, you appreciate the skilful way that Robinson structures his book. He spends a lot of time building up characters and situations, slowly drip-feeding you with little snippets of information in such a way that you don't often recognise the significance of them at the time. He gets you to invest emotionally in his characters without you actually realising it, so that you care deeply about them and are anxious to find out what happens to them.
Robinson also skilfully manipulates his reader with the use of his characters. People who initially seem to be good, often turn out to have a much darker, violent side to them; those who appear to be a bit suspect often prove otherwise. Although there are some elements of the plot which are slightly predictable, Robinson plays around with our expectations. Sometimes he conforms to genre stereotypes; sometimes he appears to do so before revealing something which changes our understanding of that character; sometimes he completely defies our expectations. This skilful means that you never quite know what to expect and he often trips you up (in a good way): you invest emotionally in characters that turn out to be capable of some quite unpleasant acts or dismiss as unlikeable characters who ultimately turn out to be reasonable human beings. This alone is enough to keep you reading.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to the book is its age. The slightly old-fashioned, slow-paced feel mentioned earlier is not going to be to everyone's taste. Robinson is clearly more interested in people and places than outright thrills and so he provides plenty of (often irrelevant) background information. This adds to the sense of time and place, but does mean that "action" is relatively thin on the ground. If you are one of those people who likes to read a thriller where each chapter ends with an incredible cliff-hanger, or which feature prolific serial killers that kill dozens of victims in a variety of interesting ways, you are probably going to find Caedmon's Song rather too pedestrian.
As already mentioned, I only picked this up because I was interested to see whether Robinson could create successful stories which did not feature Inspector Banks. I'm happy to report that on the basis of this, the answer is "yes". It contains all the elements that make the Banks books popular, but adds sufficient variety to make it an enjoyable read in its own right.
Available (new) in paperback for £4.20 or on Kindle for £3.99. It can also be picked up second hand from about £1.50. Personally, I'd recommend going for the second hand option because although it's enjoyable, it's also probably a book you will only ever want to read once.
Pan, New Edition, 2004
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012