Bill James: the Harpur and Iles mysteries

August 5, 2007 at 1:10 am (Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

jamesbil.jpg Bill James’ Harpur & Iles novels are, at least in my experience, unique. This underappreciated (at least in this country) British crime writer is exceptionally cunning in his plotting, but it’s his use of language that really sets him apart (more on this later). His characters both fear and threaten violence, which occasionally erupts, but often remains a potent, unrealized possibility, a deadly undercurrent. Meanwhile, on the surface, the police and the bad guys perform an elaborate dance with one another, trading information, and even more often, disinformation. The dialogue in these novels is brilliantly written, but I should warn the novice reader: you’ll be constantly thinking you missed something. Speakers are frequently at cross purposes; someone will ask a pointed question and be answered with a complete non sequitur. Then, several lines – or even pages! – later, the question will be answered, or answered in a manner of speaking, totally out of the context of the current conversation. It’s actually a bit dizzying!

back.jpg Colin Harpur is a decent cop, after his own fashion, but his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, is something else entirely. Here’s a description of the ACC from the twentieth entry in this long-running series, The Girl with the Long Back (2004): “…a malevolent, pirouetting, egomaniac vandal.” This, from Harpur himself! He can say this, despite being Iles’s second-in-command and probably the closest thing to an actual friend that Iles possesses. But in the past there’s been bad blood between these two: Harpur is the former lover of Iles’s wife. Indeed, in this strangely inverted universe, folk hop into and out of bed with one another with wild abandon. Marriage is no bar to the merriment. Iles himself prefers them under age. Harpur is constantly at pains to keep him away from his daughter Hazel, who herself is one of those cynical teen-agers with the knowingness of a thirty-five-year-old. (There’s something distinctly Nabokovian in this situation.) Iles may sound like a thoroughly reprehensible character, but he actually has his uses. He’s good at striking terror into the hearts of the bad guys. He has an absolute belief in justice; in fact, his convictions on this score include the sanctioning of revenge. In an earlier book in the series, two men who had killed one of Iles’s prize snitches were acquitted by the courts. Shortly thereafter, Iles saw to it that they were dispatched efficiently and irrevocably.

The bad guys in this series are extremely colorful and often a deal less frightening than their counterparts in law enforcement. They have wonderful names: Panicking Ralph Ember, Caring Oliver, and my personal favorite, “Mildly Sedated” Henschall. Some of these characters come and go rather quickly, often in the space of a single novel; others have staying power. Ralph Ember is of the latter group. He’s the owner and proprietor of the Monty, which he hopes will become a truly classy club at some time in the future. In the meantime, however, “…the Monty became the venue for community jubilees: wedding receptions, birthday get-togethers, champagne and canape evenings to mark Parole Board successes, or trial acquittals, post-funeral drink-ups, shindigs for coming of age, vengeance triumphs, accumulator racing wins.”

wolves.jpg This cheerful mixture of bourgeois neighborliness and ruthless criminality is one of the chief sources of (very black) humor in this series. These books have an in-your-face, politically incorrect, utterly irreverent quality that might turn off some readers. I tend to take them in the spirit in which they are offered: as high-spirited, often hilarious, entertainments in which the vagaries of human nature are, at times, shrewdly observed. The most recent novel in this series, Wolves of Memory, is, I think, one of James’s best. The twenty-third, Girls, is due out in October.

I’d like to conclude this post by returning to where I started: namely, with James’s highly original use of language. A reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly described it as “a kind of powerful, deadpan poetry” (laced, I had better mention, with liberal doses of profanity). James makes exceptionally effective use of figurative language, often coming up with truly startling comparisons. To wit: here is Ralph Ember trying to figure out how to get his hands on more guns: “It was a real while since Ralph bought armament and he could not be sure the supply scene had stayed the same. Stupid and smug to let absolute basic knowledge slide like that: did the Pope ditch christening skills because he had a palace now?”


  1. Dark Doings Down Under: The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] spoke in clipped fragments. I’ve encountered this stylistic quirk in the procedurals of Bill James, but James uses it to savagely humorous effect, whereas I was finding The Broken Shore anything but […]

  2. They’re back…GIRLS, by Bill James « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] all the craziness and inverted value systems on full display in this novel, as well as in all the others in this series, Harpur’s concern for his older daughter’s welfare rings absolutely true. That said, […]

  3. Maximus said,

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  4. Pix, by Bill James « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Pix is the twenty-fifth entry in the Harpur & Iles series. I’ve read about twenty of them. Ths is a series that is best read  in chronological order, though I myself have cheerfully disregarded that advice on several occasions. (Previously on this blog –  and thanks to the folks at Desperate Housewives for that locution! – I’ve reviewed Girls, Wolves of Memory, and The Girl with the Long Back.) […]

  5. Crime fiction from England - Bill James' Detective Colin Harpur said,

    […] As Rebecca Rood points out in her Books to the Ceiling Blog: […]

  6. Jack Thompson said,

    Yes, singular use of language and some wonderful humour. You wouldn’t normally expect Monty Python’s Biggus Dickus to turn up in a crime thriller (Low Pastures). Sublime!

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