‘Do your Charlie hits from the jungle, then disappear.’ – In the Absence of Iles by Bill James

April 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I’m a big fan of Bill James’s Harpur & Iles novels, so I approached In the Absence of Iles, the latest series entry, with the usual sense of happy anticipation. In the event, however, I must pronounce myself not quite satisfied…

As the novel opens, high ranking officials in law enforcement are attending a conference on how to conduct undercover operations both effectively and safely. This is an enormous challenge because of the dangers inherent in this type of police work. Some years  back, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles had lost an officer in just such an operation. The perpetrators were not only known, they were apprehended and brought to trial, only to be released on a technicality. Strangely, they ended up dead anyway. Shocking? Not to those who know Iles…

Meanwhile, having had first hand experience of the perils of ‘out-location,’ Iles is expected to attend the aforementioned  conference. But he chooses not to:

‘He considered his flagrant, picturesque, non-attendance should be sufficiently meaningful. Mountainously, imperviously, vain, he would naturally think this. Iles expected the stark gap created by his absence to turn out far more significant and vivid than the actual presence of anyone else. He was the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, and this non-bark said a bucketful.

James’s colorful, idiosyncratic language still delights; likewise penchant for far-flung simile and unexpected metaphor. The problem I had with this novel had to do with the story and the choice of main character. Iles does appear in the narrative, but only intermittently, Colin Harpur does not appear at all. The main character is ACC Esther Peterson, whom we (or I, at any rate) have not previously met. James endows Esther with plenty of angst, both on the job and at home. She’s married to Gerald, a highly strung and (very) intermittently employed  bassoonist. Gerald has a jealous nature, and Esther worries about how to defend herself should matters get physical between the two of them. She’s well schooled in self-defense but knows she’d have to proceed with caution, lest she break Gerald’s arm, an outcome that “…might have permanent effects on the bassoonery.” (I do find James’s cheerful tendency to invent new vocabulary very endearing, although it maddens the spell checker!)

Despite the piquant facts of her biography, Esther was not as compelling a character for me as the series regulars. And the novel’s plot was curiously static. This I found frustrating in a series normally characterized by lightning quick bursts of action. So – a bit of a disappointment, but I stand by my affection for this series as a whole, and I look forward to a return to form (and the return of Harpur and his frighteningly knowing teenaged daughters) in the next installment.


  1. Kay said,

    I’m about halfway through this book, and I agree. As a discussion of the ethics of undercover police operations, it’s excellent. But as a mystery, it is very static indeed. Iles’s idiosyncrasies, normally entertaining, seem a bit annoying in this context.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for posting, Kay. It’s always interesting to know if other readers have a similar experience.

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