Beast of Burden by Ray Banks – review

The Last Anti-Hero

Beast of Burden Ray banksBy the time I finish this sentence, a new fictional detective will be born. Odds are, he’ll be a middle-aged male with a deep love of jazz and a taste for single-malt scotch who doesn’t play by society’s rules. He’ll have a gruff exterior that conceals a heart of gold, a code of ethics that allows for excessive violence, but not petty larceny, and a dogged determination to seek justice. And he shall go forth to solve crimes…

We all know the formula. Hacks have been using it to pump out paint-by-number detective series’ since dick was safe to say in public. Some very talented writers have employed it, too, adding their own unique twists to the mélange. The formula still sells because it works. It may not lend itself to timeless art, but when applied correctly, it almost guarantees an entertaining read.

Ray Banks went the other way. He created a character with virtually none of the amiable-if-rugged traits we expect from our fictional detectives – and made him the star of one of the most original, visceral detective series’ ever written. With Beast of Burden, Banks brings the Callum Innes series to a close, laying one mystery’s most memorable characters to rest. Cal will be missed.

In the seedy Manchester underworld of Banks’ series, it takes more than a leather jacket and a few bad habits to qualify as an anti-hero. And yet, that’s what Cal was – an anti-hero in the truest sense of the word. Infuriatingly stubborn, childishly selfish, inexplicably morose, suspicious and irresponsible – Innes was a product of his environment, a ceaselessly brutal place where mindless violence trumps thoughtful cooperation every time.

That violence takes its toll. The series offers a time-lapse view of a reasonably healthy young man degenerating into a punch-drunk, hobbling cripple. That’s because Banks is too good a writer to give his lead Get Out of Jail Free cards. When Cal got kicked out of a speeding car in one scene, he wasn’t spruce and spry in the next (he had a permanent limp and a twisted back that had him gobbling pain pills like Skittles). So after the stroke Cal suffered at the end of No More Heroes, he shows up for Beast shuffling with a cane, his scarred face frozen in a half-grimace, which (in typical Cal fashion) he gleefully uses to make people uncomfortable.

Beast begins with a scene that parallels the intro of Saturday’s Child – Cal is summoned by Morris Tiernan, a brutal Manchester crime lord, whose estranged son (a pill-popping psychopath we’ve met before) is missing. “Uncle” Morris wants him found discretely and Cal, despite his attempts to go straight, accepts. Unlike that first time, though, Cal’s not doing it for the money – but because he senses an opportunity to get some payback for the pain the Tiernans have caused him, including, we learn, the recent suicide of his brother.

The narrative in Beast of Burden is split between Cal and Detective “Donkey” Donkin, a Keystone cop for the ultraviolent era, whose definition of police work amounts to harassing ex-cons ‘til he finds something to pin on them. Detective Donkin has been determined to send Callum back to jail since the series began, but his goal is suddenly complicated when another ex-con makes a brutality complaint against him that threatens his career. As Cal works his mysterious scheme, hustling to stay one-step ahead of “Uncle Mo” and his goons, Donkin acts as an agent of chaos – unwittingly helping, then mucking up, Cal’s plans.

All the Callum Innes books are excellent – but Beast of Burden is the best. It shows a Cal who’s changed profoundly since Saturday’s Child – one not controlled by the demands of addiction or the whims of powerful men, but doing something for himself. His physical infirmities have forced him to use his brain to navigate the violent world he’s a part of, instead of diving head-first into the maelstrom. Eventually, he’s doomed by his sudden inability to flow with his predatorial environment, but he doesn’t go out quietly. When Cal’s end comes, he’s got a whole lot of fingers stuck in a lot of peoples’ eyes. Just the way he would’ve wanted it.

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5 comments

  1. “The formula still sells because it works. It may not lend itself to timeless art, but when applied correctly, it almost guarantees an entertaining read.”

    I think the form has produced some timeless classics though. The Lew Griffin books by James Sallis; The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley to name just a few.

  2. No doubt. I must have removed it while cutting, but the sentence originally said “It might not OFTEN lend itself to timeless art…” I’d be the last person to claim the formula hasn’t produced timeless classics – in fact, I’d guess that MOST of the crime novels that qualify have used some variable of it.

  3. Excellent review. Always looking for protags who break the mold. Gonna have to read Banks.

  4. thanks for the thoughtful review! can’t wait to read it – especially if its as good as banks other books.

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