Playing With Fire

Tjursday, 30 May 2013

Playing With Fire.jpg

The reread the DCI Banks series from go to woah scheme comes rather drastically unstuck here, thanks to the British ITV series that delivered a rather heavily modified Playing With Fire and had Hughesy reaching for the bookshelves to check the intersection between the written and dramatised versions of the plot line, and I guess the same thing will be happening after I’ve iViewed the remaining episodes from the first series (Friend of The Devil and Cold is The Grave).

The actual object of the whole exercise is to keep track of the titles in an extensive series, and it had been a while since the first run through Playing With Fire. While you’d expect a few differences I wasn’t quite prepared for the major transformations in Robert Murphy’s adaptations, and they worked well enough though he’s done a couple of things that have implications for the ongoing soap opera side of things.

What hasn’t changed is the core of the case, where a deliberately lit fire in two barges moored end to end on a dead end canal ends up linked to an art fraud. The fire claims two victims, a reclusive artist and a teenage junkie, and while the modus operandi involved in the art fraud remains the same, there are significant differences between the two versions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the ongoing shake out after the end of Banks’ affair with his offsider, DI Annie Cabbot in an environment where keeping their professional relationship viable is going to be a major issue, particularly when Annie launches herself into an involvement with a handsome art authenticator, who would appear to be a useful source when it comes to assessing what may well be forged artworks. Useful, that is, as long as Banks can contain a degree of jealousy and a suspicion that there are things about Philip Keane that don’t quite add up.

Of course, right through the police procedural genre things aren’t quite the way they seem, and sorting out the realities behind the situation is almost invariably the key to solving the case.

The squatter living on the first barge, reclusive and unsuccessful artist Tom McMahon, looks to have been the target of the arson attack. The second victim, teenaged heroin addict Tina Aspern, was estranged from her mother and stepfather so there are obvious issues there. 

Her boyfriend, troubled day labourer Mark Siddons, was found near the fire scene, tried to escape but was caught and interrogated, revealing that he’d quarrelled with Tina and left her alone with her fix while he headed out for a night on the tiles which has delivered a strong alibi in the form of the Leeds University student he ended up spending the night with. Mark adds another aspect to the investigation when he suggests Tina’s addiction stems from the fact that she had been abused by her stepfather, Doctor Patrick Aspern.

He’d hoped to rescue Tina from the depths to which she had sunk, and his attempts to escape the remorse and grief associated with her death provides another narrative strand that weaves around the investigation.

Another obvious suspect comes in Andrew Hurst, the obsessive collector who reported the blaze. In his account, having noticed the flames, he rode his bicycle down to the blaze, rode back to phone the fire brigade and returned to watch them put the fire out. Fair enough, you might think, but you suspect there’s a bit of perving going on and he’s washed all his clothes by the time Banks and Cabbot arrive to interview him.

Then there’s Leslie Whitaker, owner of an antiquarian book shop who sold McMahon old books that could provide paper suitable for forged Turner watercolours, quite possibly a man with something to hide.

Suspicions are on the rise two days later when a second fire in a caravan parked in a relatively remote spot in the countryside claims the life of Roland Gardiner, a down-and-out failed business man but fails to damage a fireproof safe containing a large amount of cash and what appears to be a Turner watercolour.

There’s no doubt the fires were deliberately lit, and the modus operandi seems much the same, so the answer to the case would seem to lie in establishing the connections between the two and unearthing the identity of a third participant in the art fraud scam, who is more than likely going to turn out to be the culprit.

As Banks and Cabbot go about doing that, Mark Siddons goes on a cross country trip that spins things out a bit and there are the regulation dead ends, clues, red herrings and side issues before circumstances rather than deduction lead to the identification of the cunning and calculating villain who’s a thoroughly nasty piece of work and sedates his victims with a date rape drug before setting the fire, using a candle as the seemingly innocent timing device to start the blaze. He has also covered his tracks rather well, using a rented car to approach the scenes of the crimes and arranging the rental using the identity and, more significantly, the credit card details, of a man long since dead.

The astute reader may or may not have spotted him earlier on, but even if that’s the case the rush of action that leads up to the conclusion keeps those pages turning, almost of their own volition. It’s an ending that sets things up for a couple of new strands in the soap opera ongoing interactions side of a good, solid police procedural series where the characters work as a group with its own internal dynamic as the cases they investigate tend to involve the darker recesses of the human mind. 

© Ian Hughes 2012