The theories of Karl Marx get a highly unorthodox working over in Bill James’s Hotbed. Two competing drug lords, Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale, have declared a truce. Rather than do battle over the available territory, their “firms” have elected to simply carve it up between them. The agreement includes the prevention of any third party interlopers from gaining a a foothold.
As Hotbed opens, suspicions are being voiced that the surface amity between Manse and Ralph is just that: surface, and fraying dangerously at the edges. (This ominous observation is made first by Colin Harpur’s precocious daughter Hazel.) Does this portend the return of violence to the patch ruled with such a firm hand by Harpur’s boss, the always impeccably turned out ACC Desmond Isles? It might do just that….
Either way, the reader need not worry. The cheerfully irreverent wit and wisdom of Bill James are back in full force here: Iles’s snarling insults; the manic dialog laced with non sequiturs and alternately studded with lofty philosophizing and savage profanity; the seemingly omniscient adolescent daughters of Harpur and Ember – all are on full glorious display.
In the not-so-distant past, Harpur had an affair with Iles’s wife. Iles is a brilliant policeman with a spot-on intuitive sense, but he has to work hard to keep the memory of Harpur’s perfidy from hijacking his thought processes:
‘I cannot – absolutely cannot and must not – let unpleasantness from some way back affect my mentality. In fact, I will tabulate for you what I’m absolutely determined to avoid, because it would be pervy, prurient, brain-corroding, Othello-like.’
Iles then proceeds to obsess over the very thing he claims he is struggling to forget. He repeats this performance compulsively throughout the novel – in fact, throughout the entire series.
As for Ralph Ember, he has other irons in the fire in addition to his lucrative business as a drug dealer. He’s also the owner / proprietor of the Monty, a club that caters for his colleagues in the underworld. The police also put in frequent appearances on the premises, so as to keep informed on what those same colleagues are getting up to. Ralph has dreams of a loftier destiny for the Monty, but those dreams must be put on hold while the facility serves as a venue for more immediate occasions of importance, such as:
(a) wedding, divorce and christening parties,
(b) jail releases,
(c) helpful parole or bail decisions,
(d) enemy deaths or major disablings, and turf battle triumphs in general,
(e) charity cabarets and strip shows,
(g) successful Appeal Court judgements,
(h) knockabout comics,
(i) loot share-outs after extremely unnamed jobs,
(j) suspended sentences due to full prisons,
(l) and…the traditional drinks session following a funeral….
It is at one of these last events that a character called Unhinged Humphrey nearly lives up to his name by attempting to assault Manse Shale’s fiancee Naomi. Ralph is on him like lightning, with Shale subsequently administering an additional drubbing of his own. Unhinged is borne away, only to reappear later in the evening:
Humphrey Maidment-Fane returned to the bar through the kitchen door walking unsupported. He didn’t look too bad. The pad and bandages had been removed and his collar and jacket. Someone had lent him an old blue sweat shirt with ‘Phi Beta Kappa, University of Life’ printed in white capitals across it. His hair seemed to have been rinsed. The cuts had stopped gushing and Ember saw no blood anywhere on him, but his cheekbone under one eye was blue-bruised, though maybe not broken.
Ralph pours him a stiff one and everybody’s friends again – sort of….
Hotbed is the 27th entry in the Harpur and Iles series. I’ve been reading them more or less regularly since Take (1990). (Several years ago I reached back to The Lolita Man, from 1986, after reading this post on D.G. Myers’s Commonplace Blog.) This is a series that is most rewarding the earlier you start it. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the characters grow and change, but their histories build in an interesting way. If anything, they become more and more themselves, which is strange enough.
Bill James writes like no one else I know. I’d give him what our British friends would term full marks for originality combined with a sense of sheer manic fun.