A portrait of Met detective turned writer Ian Robinson
by publisher Erik Empson
It was with some trepidation that I travelled to meet Ian Robinson – before becoming a writer much of his working life was spent with the police. With my misspent youth and all, when I’d previously encountered the boys in blue up close and personal, the experiences weren’t exactly edifying. For me, at least.
I find Ian already seated in the restaurant where we’re meeting for lunch and he immediately fans the flames beneath the simmering concern. Doesn’t he recognise me from somewhere? Shit, he might well do. But surely not from when I flicked a V at a passing cop car in Birmingham at fourteen, and was rewarded by having to sit in it for half an hour whilst I learned to feign contrition. Not when… oh well, they were mostly misdemeanours and there must be some sort of statute of limitations. Turns out, though, he was joking, and subsequently throughout our meeting there is rarely a moment free of mirth.
If most crime authors have to work hard to write about police procedure that they have little direct experience of, Ian is faced with a different obstacle. He’s had more than his fair share of it. For instance, the gallows humour which the genre often restricts to the trope of encounters between the lead detective and the pathologist, is perhaps more pervasive than readers would find acceptable. Some things don’t translate, and a good writer like Ian has learned to judge the extent to which reality must be bent to accord to the expectations of the audience. The latter might baulk at the apparent indifference of talking to a family member on the phone about feeding the cat on their way to a murder scene but les flics are human too, supposedly.
Ian’s three books published with us centre on the exploits of two London Metropolitan Police officers, DI Pippa Nash and DS Nick Moretti. Their differing characters – Nash is the senior one, a bit uptight and unforthcoming, but a team-player; Moretti is something of a maverick, living on a canal boat with a stripper for a neighbour and a bottle for a companion – are mostly complementary, although there are clashes along the way. I guess they reflect something of a fissure in Ian’s own life. At times he had to act the disciplinarian whereas perhaps he was happier being Jack the lad.
He recounts an episode when he returned to uniform in order to fast-track his promotion to Detective Sergeant. Having been off the streets for some time, his own knowledge of procedure was decidedly rusty and it took some courage from his subalterns – he is pretty imposing, so rather them than me – to point out that his orders were out of date. As with quickly changing trends in the crime genre, the day-to-day reality of policing is constantly evolving.
Now having a bit of an insight into Ian’s character – he has an active mind and looks for a laugh and a challenge in equal measure – I can understand why plain-clothed detective work was more for him. And his books, which fortunately aren’t replete with filling in forms, give us more clues. Off the beat, more leeway is given to officers to develop their own modus operandi and they can carve out small dens for themselves inside the spaces they inhabit. This is particularly so for those who do covert work, like Ian’s Nash character, and despite the short spells in uniform, this was Ian’s bag too.
Given that we publish a lot of crime fiction, one thing that interests me is the institutional mentality within the police, because outwardly its public relations have had to balance strongly conflicting impressions and expectations. One only needs to think of the miners’ strikes, Stop and Search, and the Criminal Justice Bill to remind oneself of how divided perceptions are. Despite Robert Peel’s early efforts to give it a civilian character, the police’s organisational structure and lingua franca, though more muted now, Ian assures me, can appear military in nature. The morning briefing is a parade. There is a chain of command. When dealing with people who are often at their worst and you are on the front line this is perhaps inevitable. The police are still to a degree by necessity separate from society and this is why their pain at not being tolerated or accepted is often clearly felt, and this separation is possibly why within the population at large there’s an enduring fascination for their inner workings.
This is mirrored in the differing tastes of crime fiction readers. A cosy Dixon of Dock Green picture postcard might still bring comfort to many, but readers also have an appetite for the grittier kind of realism found in Ian’s books, which reflect the very different make up of urban communities today and the new sources of intelligence used. One thing that doesn’t often come across in the genre is the extent of police work involved in crime prevention, but whether it is social media, tracking the movement of a firearm, or monitoring phones and other forms of surveillance, this legwork is a big part of the picture.
Ian spent much of his career in child protection. This role took lots of different forms: from assisting social workers and cracking paedophile rings, to investigating infanticide. I ask Ian if he ever wonders what happened to the people he has helped over the years. He answers with the example of how he was contacted by the social worker of a boy whom he rescued some time ago. He was able to give the lad some closure as to why he was removed from his violent mother, and I am sure Ian downplayed his own heroism then, as he does with me, preferring to gloss over his role in what was evidently a traumatic situation.
All the haring around took its toll on Ian. He hasn’t drunk alcohol for nineteen years, but it was a crutch for him whilst on the job. Ruefully he recounts the moments it got too much, and tells a familiar story many Londoners will recognise, of waking up at the last station on the line, the last train disappearing into the night. It is a heady job and little surprise the police are made to retire earlier than most. It was not this, however, that led him to wind down his career, but rather a stealthy illness which crept up on him unawares.
Laughing, Ian recounts when, still in uniform he was chasing a miscreant down the street. His heart was in it but his legs weren’t, and an old lady heading in the same direction was pretty much keeping up with him. For a long time doctors didn’t know what was up, but he now has a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy to add to his stripes. This has attacked mostly his lower body and he can no longer get about without the aid of a wheelchair or mechanical supports on his legs. He is typically not self-pitying about the situation but it is without doubt a trying affair. Fortunately there were roles in intelligence for him to continue his police work but when the struggle became too great, with his wife he resolved to move from their impractical London home and transfer to Scotland.
Ian speaks of how he awoke the first morning in his isolated house overlooking Solway Firth, saw a couple of cows looking mournfully back at him through the window, and promptly went back to bed. His wife was, however, instantly smitten. Now he doesn’t regret the move but I do sense he misses the camaraderie, the hustle and bustle of the city and the kind of life where no day is the same, and any news is generally bad news. His writing offers a way to relive this eventful life and share it with the wider world in a way that was impossible before. In so doing he has contributed to the genre some of its most authentic and relevant works to date.
Ian couldn’t have stayed in bed for too long, though, because he has other responsibilities. And for a man with weak legs, he has certainly a heavier than average burden to shoulder. Both of his children have additional needs. The elder autism and the younger significant learning difficulties. He starts the hare running, but we don’t dwell on it. Behind the mirth, here is a considerate and sensitive man who has a lot on his plate.
It nears the time when we have to leave, it has passed quickly. The restaurant has emptied, the other patrons probably jealous of the good time we’ve been having. Besides, Ian is on another mission. His youngest child’s tortoise is poorly, and he must take it to the vet. We exchange a knowing look: after some of the deep issues we’ve touched on, it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for a reptile that’s probably just eaten too much cabbage. But this time we don’t laugh, and Ian won’t succumb to breaking the manly spell with which he serves and protects his boy.
I can’t remember the exact phrase, or if there actually is one, but surely there’s something along the lines of it not being the blows we take that define us, but how quickly we get up from them. Later I reflect on how many of our authors have found their way to fiction after their life’s course has been upset. I sense that even if there are bumps along the road, Ian is in it for the long haul. He isn’t going anywhere quickly, anyway, although to be fair I haven’t seen him drive. He has gone from being one sort of unsung hero, to another. But at least in his latter role, where Daddy saves the tortoise, the results will be tangible.
My time in the south west of Scotland has been marred by almost constant rain. But meeting the talented authors who’ve found their way up there, for very different reasons, I know that it is just testing me and I will have to return. In fact, as I make my way to the motorway, the sun makes an unexpected but auspicious cameo appearance, and the silent hills are reflected perfectly in the newly flooded fields. It looks like the Lake District in miniature but by the time I’ve hurtled down the M6 and reached the real thing, it is once again shrouded by the weather. I check my speed. It’s possible I’m being followed. Besides, better a lethargic tortoise than a dead hare.
For links to buy Ian Robinson’s books on Kindle or in paperback from Amazon, click here.