Peter Robinson laughs at the recollections of his first ever meeting with actor Stephen Tompkinson, who plays his creation DCI Banks in the hit ITV drama.
The actor, he recalls, offered to meet him at his home in Toronto, Canada, where he lives for much of the year with his wife Sheila – but it was winter, and winters in Toronto are cold.
“Stephen wanted to talk about the character and offered to come over to Toronto to see me in the middle of winter. I said, we’re going to Tampa, Florida, so he came over to see us there instead, which was a much sunnier place to do his research.”
The bestselling author, whose 22nd Banks novel Abattoir Blues is about to be published, also has a home in Richmond, Yorkshire, which he returns to two or three times a year to help avoid homesickness – and to stock up on Yorkshire Gold tea.
During his stay in the UK this summer, he will be appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival, making the most of the chance to keep connected with fans. There is a lot he misses when he is not here.
“I miss the walks and the pubs. In Canada, I live in the city and it’s great there. My wife’s family and friends are there. It’s two sides of a coin. Whichever way we go, everyone thinks we are on holiday.”
Robinson, now 64, emigrated to Canada in 1974, to continue his studies after doing an English Literature degree at Leeds University. He went on to do an MA in English and creative writing at Canada’s University of Windsor, with American author Joyce Carol Oates as his tutor.
For years, he only wrote poetry. He created Banks to stave off the homesickness he was feeling, imagining himself back in Yorkshire.
“At night, I would write crime just to relax. Before crime fiction I was writing poetry and had a part-time teaching job, which was enough to get by.”
Since he introduced Alan Banks 27 years ago, in his debut novel Gallows View, the character has changed, he says.
“He was a lot more brash in the early books, but he now has less of that youthful brashness and energy and, as he’s got older, there have been changes in his life. He’s moved from the town to the country. He’s become more melancholy. He’s not as excited about getting his teeth into a case as he once was.”
In the latest book, the story begins with what seems like the unexciting theft of a tractor, hardly a job for DCI Banks and his homicide team. But at the same time, police are investigating a mysterious bloodstain in a disused hangar, and two local lads are missing. Soon the officers find themselves branching in all directions in a race against time.
How does Robinson keep his fictional detective fresh?
“I throw a load of crap at him and see how he handles it,” he says wryly. “Banks has unfolded very slowly over the years, which still leaves me plenty to work with. Sometimes the situations I give to him make him brood about things, and I don’t know how he’s going to react.
“I understand him because I have written about him for so long, but I don’t plan the plots of the books.”
Robinson says programme-makers were keen to include him in the process when the series started in 2010, although the TV adaptations are very different from his books, but he even had a Hitchcock-style walk-on part in the first episode, and hopes to be in a future pub scene.
It has been difficult to get Tompkinson out of his head when writing Banks, though.
“I have to put TV out of my mind when I’m writing,” the author explains.
“Stephen is taller than the Banks in the books, and my Annie (DS Annie Cabbot) is a brunette, whereas Andrea Lowe plays her as a blonde.
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t expect exact duplication. No actor is going to satisfy everybody’s image of the way a fictional character should look, but that doesn’t mean he or she can’t capture that character’s spirit. I think it’s a good TV series.”
How much of Banks is Robinson?
“We’re not really alike, though we share some tastes in music and agree on a number of political issues. We also share the same working-class background, and I think our lives followed a similar course until our late teens when I went into university and a career in literature, teaching and writing, and Banks joined the police.
“I don’t think I could do his job. I like sitting with a glass of wine and a book.”
While the books have been translated into 20 languages and Robinson has won numerous crime-writing awards, one critic observed that he has “for too long, and unfairly, been in the shadow of Ian Rankin”. Robinson is philosophical and pretty modest about the comment. He has been friends with Rankin for years, since before the Scottish writer became famous, after they met at a crime convention in Toronto.
“Ian Rankin is a phenomenon,” he says simply. “You can’t imagine achieving that level of familiarity. He’s a very prolific, well-known writer and deservedly so.”
For now, he has no plans to send his most famous DCI into retirement.
Peter Robinson, ScottishPower Foundation Studio, Charlotte Square, 21 August, 8.30pm, £10.00, 0845-373 5888
Abattoir Blues by Peter Robinson is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99