Sunday, July 19, 2009

Coming up 'Roses, Roses'

One of the few disappointments at this year's otherwise excellent Crimefest convention was that Bill James had to withdraw at late notice.  I was disappointed because I've long thought James to be one of the most intriguing and underrated of British crime writers.  In the event, we had the compensation both of a excellent solo interview with John Harvey, and also of Harvey reading extracts from what many consider to be one of James's best books, Roses, Roses

It may be that James remains undervalued because, compared with some of his police proceduralist counterparts (including the excellent Harvey himself), he's something of an acquired taste.  His books tend to be driven by character rather than plot (not that there's anything wrong with his plots), and the characters themselves are engaging but far from straightforwardly likeable.  Other crime writers may give their characters the odd peccadillo  to add colour,  but James makesflawed humanity his central theme.  His characters are cynical, devious and lustful - and the bad guys are even worse.  But James's is an ambigious world.  His police heroes, for all their cynicism, are driven by a fierce intelligence and a profound moral imperative.  In a broken society, it's the realists, not the sentimentalists, who provide the ethical counterweight. It's no surprise that one of James's books, Astride a Grave, takes its title from Samuel Beckett, or that Beckett's Endgame is referenced in Roses, Roses.  If Beckett had ever turned his hand to crime fiction, it might have turned out a little like Bill James. 

James's books are realistic, but they're not exactly naturalistic.  As Peter Rozovsky (a big champion of James's work, who was no doubt even more disappointed than I was to miss him in Bristol) has pointed out, James is  one of the finest stylists in the crime genre.  His dialogue in particular is glorious - oblique, elliptical, freighted with meaning.  And often hilarious.  The books themselves veer from the blackest of black comedy to genuine tragedy, often within a few sentences. 

John Harvey's reading (and his citing of it as one of the books he'd like to have written) sent me back to Roses, Roses.  It's a remarkable novel from the heart of James's series about Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles.  It begins - and this isn't a spoiler since it's revealed in the opening sentence - with the death of Harpur's wife, Megan, who has to date been a significant presence in the series.  And, as Harvey pointed out, that opening sentence is perhaps one of the best in crime fiction:

'When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband she was leaving him for another man.'

Hard to top that, but James takes us back into Megan Harpur's life as her husband, himself serially unfaithful, determines to uncover the reasons for her death.  In the process, he creates, not just a gripping crime novel, but also a remarkable meditation on love, loyalty and loss. 

If you haven't discovered Bill James and the Harpur and Iles books, then you've twenty-five novels to look forward to, all of them worth reading and several of them as good as crime fiction gets.  But take them slowly. Like any acquired taste, they can rapidly become addictive.


1. Martin+Edwards said...

I too like Bill James' writing. I first read The Lolita Man when it came out,and from then I was hooked.

2. Michael Walters said...

Thanks, Martin - glad to find another enthusiast!

3. Norman+aka+Uriah said...

The John Harvey interview was a highlight of Crime Fest for me and I bought and read Roses Roses as soon as I was home. Superb stuff and probably a more accurate picture of police officers than most crime fiction.

4. Michael Walters said...

Yes, I agree, Norman. I hadn't been back to Bill James for a while and had almost forgotten how good his books are until John Harvey reminded me.

5. Peter said...

Oh, I was disappointed, all right. I decided to skip the session when I learned he was not going to make it, and I was sorry I'd done so once I heard about the fine reading and tribute rendered by John Harvey.

I did do a nice e-mail interview with Bill James about a month and a half after Bristol, though.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

6. Michael+Walters said...

That sounds an excellent compensation! Apologies for the delay in posting your comment, incidentally, Peter. I'm current on holiday in the Scottish Highlands and have been without good internet access for a few days.

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