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Piece of My Heart

by Peter Robinson

Hippies flourished from about 1966 to 1968. After that, predators began to close in on the happy campers. Bigger, badder varieties of drugs, money, and seekers of pleasure ruined the dream for the kids and idealists. The Manson murders took place at roughly the same time as Woodstock, and four months later the debacle at Altamont brought the 1960s to a close. Troubles at the outdoor rock festivals became illustrative of problems afflicting youth culture in general, and in the popular imagination festivals became associated with acres of garbage. The rubbish-strewn fields looked distinctly creepy; some of them resembled scenes of a crime.

This is where Peter Robinson comes in.

A serious pop music fan as well as the creator of the excellent Inspector Banks mysteries – of which Piece of My Heart is the 15th – Robinson takes readers back to 1969, a great year for music, and an interesting one for violence. The book begins in the aftermath of a pop festival at Brimleigh Beacon, North Yorkshire, featuring headliners Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin, plus a fictional group of local lads on their way to global success, the Mad Hatters. Some fans on clean-up detail discover the body of a young girl stabbed to death in a sleeping bag, a flower painted on her cheek.

Detective Inspector Stanley Chadwick takes the case, at which point worlds begin to collide. Chadwick, who has a rebellious 15-year-old daughter, embodies the self-denying postwar reverence for church and state. Chadwick is as tolerant as the next man, but is angered by the fact that the young generation simply throws away its privileges – the kids choose to be scruffy – and wonders what they are in search of, anyway.

As that case unfolds, another murder, this one in the present day, seems to have links to the victim at Beacon. A young music journalist who travelled to the Brimleigh area to research a story on the eventful career and current revival of the Mad Hatters is murdered, and Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks finds that the two cases are connected by the long, strange trip of the Hatters, who lost one member in a drowning accident and another to mental illness.

The passing of 40 years has obscured evidence and scattered most of the witnesses. Banks reflects on his circumstances: he’s divorced, living in a cottage, experiencing a changing of the guard at work, and dealing with mixed feelings about his son’s success in the music industry. The novel moves back and forth between Chadwick and Banks, using pop songs not only as historical signposts but as mood enhancers.

One of Robinson’s great strengths as a writer is his fullness; all the players are vivid and richly constructed, with beautifully judged shadings of character. Another strength is his facility with time. Robinson uses the past as an echo chamber of emotions and relationships; he knows how time distorts and also amplifies the truth.

The novel has one or two micro-sized flaws. The ending isn’t much of a surprise, and some of the unhinged qualities of the 1960s fail to come through – even the loonies are a tad too accessible, too much like what we expect. The novel also fails utterly to convey the drug experience, or any sense of why drugs mattered. Piece of My Heart promises us weird scenes inside the gold mine; it stops just short of taking us all the way there, but is nevertheless a singular and heady ride.