Let’s start with the disclaimer: I knew Ray Robinson slightly, when he returned to Manchester at the back end of the 2000s, and we drank together on Oxford Road. The man had a presence, compact and taut and dark, with a precise Lancashire drawl and a back story that read more like a novel than an ordinary life. We’d drink pint after pint and talk about literature and publishing; this continued for around half a year until Ray headed again, on his travels: when I last heard from him, he was in Arizona, researching the book that would become Forgetting Zoe.
His latest novel Jawbone Lake at first therefore surprised me – it seemed too conventional from the outset. The title could be from a midlist American thriller. A man dies in a car crash. This guy is a well loved family/community man: ‘a handsome devil. Women looked at him when he walked down the street. He would always smile back, a swagger in his step … Everybody loved him.’ Then information emerges. Turns out this man, C J Arms, was not such a stand up guy after all, he’s been involved in all sorts of dubious shit, and his grieving son Joe is pulled into the mystery. In an interview with the Raven Crime website, Robinson said that ‘rather than making the crime super-complex and rushing through the plot at breakneck speed, I’ve focused instead on the ripples that spread throughout the families and community involved, as CJ’s secret life is revealed.’
Although ‘Jawbone Lake’ sounds US, the action takes place in rural Derbyshire and the Andalucian coast. This is a High Peak of precarious mountain paths, deep forest and jagged tor, endless reservoirs in which, every other year, some young idiot gets himself drowned. Although the prose isn’t always of the best quality, there’s always a sense of place. ‘Landscapes can act as agents of positive change or protection, or be malign and life threatening,’ Robinson writes. Jawbone Lake is a landscape on which the sun never shines. Robinson’s Spain and England are both drowned in the same sepulchral murk. From the novel: ‘The full moon and swatch of stars lit the surrounding bowl of hills in an insipid, blue-white light, picking out scalloped ice in boot-shaped puddles […] Ahead of them, rowing boats sat frozen into the ice beside a jetty, and, in the far distance, police searchlights illuminated the crash site…’
The difficulty is obvious. Grief should be an uncomplicated process. Yet for the Arms family, when CJ dies, everything they know about him is compromised, and his son is forced to mourn a man who he discovers was involved in an evil trade. How do you grieve for someone you barely knew? There’s a lot of speculation but not many real clues to CJ’s motives. Maybe he needed the money, or the glamour, got involved in criminal enterprise simply for the kicks, or from that old male habit of compartmentalisation. ‘Family secrets are at the heart of all my books,’ Robinson says. ‘Secrets eat away at people and can ruin lives.’ We all have our secrets though, and we all have something to hide. We just have to hope that our secrets, and our choices, don’t impact too harshly on ourselves or others.