“The methodology is a farce, a placebo, a pretence….” – Undercover, by Bill James

December 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

237564949065146519_LRZbbUnO_c It’s an assignment that Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles hates and will have nothing to do with. He has his reasons. Some years back, he’d inserted Ray Street, an avid young policeman, into the heart of a ruthless gang of drug dealers. Long story short: Ray Street did not live to become an avid old policeman. (These events are recounted in Halo Parade, from 1987.)

Iles wrought a no-holds-barred vengeance on those responsible for the murder of Ray Street. But he remains angry and embittered. Nor does it soften his demeanor at all to be working with Colin Harpur, one-time lover of his wife Sarah. (James describes a police force in which merry and indiscriminate copulation is the rule rather than the exception. This, despite the fact that the practice is fraught with danger and can lead to the kind of barely restrained fury displayed  without warning by Iles.)

In Undercover, Iles and Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur are seconded to another police force in order to investigate a more recent undercover operation that has resulted, once again, in an officer’s death. Scenes of the two men being briefed after the fact by a comely and very savvy Home Office agent named Maud Logan Clatworthy – Bill James has a flair for names and nicknames – alternate with scenes of Sergeant Tom Mallen inserting himself, as Tom Parry, into the drug running gang. Tom has a wife and kids; he must distance himself from them as he prepares to navigate these extremely treacherous waters.

Bill James is a versatile and highly original writer. He has a way of describing people that’s- well, I’ll let him do it. Here’s Leo, a head man in the illicit drugs operation:

It was an unscarred face which could have been genial. But his features lacked sufficient room and looked cluttered, crammed into a paltry space and competing with one another for position, like too many survivors on a lifeboat.

James can be savagely funny, or just plain savage; the black humor can be very, very dark. Dialogue is often laced with profanity, something I ordinarily dislike but don’t mind in these novels because it seems to belong  where he puts it. Literary allusions are all over the map; in Undercover, they range from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Here’s yet another; I found this one especially resonant:

Not long ago, he’d read an old Cold War espionage story The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, lately reprinted. In it, an agent is trying to get out of East Berlin and into the West on a bike, pedalling fast. And while he was pedalling fast the bike seemed a brilliant, basic escape machine. But then an East German sentry takes aim and shoots the agent. He and the cycle, of course, clatter to the ground and lie there, a spent heap. That word from the book – “clatter” – had got itself fixed in Tom’s memory. It was so right for a bike.

In this succinct summing up of the brilliance of John LeCarre’s masterpiece, we are reminded, should we need reminding, of the terrible risk being run, every minute of every day, by Tom Mallen/Parry. (One of the trickiest parts of the process is the need to assume a new identity while holding on to the old. Tom is in essence two persons inhabiting one body. Constant vigilance is required to prevent a fatal slip-up.)

Iles kicks off an excoriating exchange on the topic of undercover work with this paraphrase: “‘I have measured out my life with carrier bags.'” References to T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock’ carry through the (increasingly heated) discussion between Iles, Harpur, and Maud, with the latter  commenting on the cover story that an agent doing this dangerous work must adopt, keep straight, and make convincing:

‘For an officer to kit himself out with something very innocent and run-of-the-mill,….It helps him or her look as though he or she has some purpose – some purpose other than the clandestine get-together, that is. To sort of prepare a face to meet the faces that he or she will meet. A social background.’

She terms this the essential methodology of undercover work. Iles isn’t having any of it: “‘The methodology is a  farce, a placebo, a pretence that the danger can be countered and seen off.'” Harpur goes on to enlighten Maud concerning the fate of Ray Street, and Iles’s sense of complicity in that fate. While acknowledging the traumatic nature of this experience, Maud refuses to give Iles a pass because of it. She accuses him of  “”Sentimentalizing one past event, allowing it to control the present and the future.” Her final judgment of this mindset: “‘Irrational, half-bakes, death-obsessed.'”

Now at this juncture, I expected Iles to leap out of his seat and punch Maud in the face. But he does not do that – does not, in fact, do anything for several minutes. Eventually he summons the strength to pronounce a rejoinder fairly dripping with sarcasm:

‘Grand words for his gravestone. He’s going to be killed as a spy only a few months after this wonderfully confident and positive start.’

One of the many aspects of these novels that I treasure is that as soon as you think you know how a character will react, you are proved wrong, in a way that can be disconcerting, even shocking, but for all that still believable.

Begun in 1985 with You’d Better Believe It, the Harpur and Iles series now consists of twenty-nine novels and one short story collection. The novels are tightly wound, usually clocking in at around two hundred pages (in my view, the ideal length for a procedural). Individuals in law enforcement are vividly portrayed; their counterparts in the criminal underworld, equally so.  Concerning the lives of the characters, there’s a great deal of carry over from one book to the next.  Indeed, there’s an overarching sensibility that informs the entire series, much like the ten novels of the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The question invariably arises: must you the reader begin at the beginning? The answer is that it depends on your own preference. The first one I read was Take from 1990. I then went back and picked up several of the earlier titles. From 1999 on (Lovely Mover), I’ve pretty much read them all. I’ve reviewed the following in this space: Hotbed, In the Absence of Iles, Pix, Girls, The Girl with the Long Back, and Wolves of Memory. I’ve enjoyed all of them, though to my mind, In the Absence of Iles was not as entertaining as the others. On the other hand, Wolves of Memory, a finalist for the 2006 Gold Dagger Award, was exceptionally fine and as a good a place to jump into the series as any.

Finding information on Bill James is challenging and made more difficult by his use of the rather bland pseudonym. He’s written two books under his real name, James Tucker (actually Allan James Tucker). Additionally, he has utilized the pseudonyms David Craig and Judith Jones. He needs all of them, I suppose, as he’s quite prolific. (See his Wikipedia entry for the full list.) Born in Cardiff, Wales, Bill James earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at University College, Cardiff. He went on to serve two years in the Royal Air Force. Finally, like so many of his fellow crime writers, he began his literary career as a journalist. In the St. James Guide To Crime and Mystery Writers, James says this:

    I began writing “straight” (i.e., non-crime) novels in the late 1950s. Then moved into espionage when it became modish after le Carré and Deighton. Then crime in the 1980s.

I am interested in the criminal as much as the police. My Harpur and Iles books are about the impossibility of controlling crime by strictly legitimate methods. Assistant Chief Constable Iles is suspected of murders in “a noble cause.” Harpur–the ostensible hero of the books–tries to keep Iles reasonably decent.

The main influence on my work is George V. Higgins–though I don’t know if he would be pleased to hear it. I admire the ability to mimic crook vocabulary; and the skill at making a fink sympathetic in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, possibly the greatest crime novel I’ve read.

I’ve recently revived my David Craig pseudonym for a new series of crime novels set in the modernised and modernising Cardiff dockland.

A look at James’s bibliography shows a group of novels written as David Craig dating from 1995 to 2006. This would indicate that the above remarks date from time in the mid 1990s. And it’s interesting that James is an admirer of George V. Higgins. The film Killing Them Softly, released this year and starring Brad Pitt, Scott McNairy, and James Gandolfini, is based on Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade. Reviewing the movie has given critics a chance to praise the work of this author. Here’s A.O. Scott of the New York Times: “Higgins, who died in 1999 and whose book “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was adapted into a first-rate movie starring Robert Mitchum, was a master of hard-boiled, world-weary macho dialogue.’

Regarding the paucity of information, Bill James reminds me of Peter Turnbull, another excellent British writer of police procedurals who keeps an extremely low profile and for whom an image search yields very meager results:


Bill James, the largest image I could find

Born in 1929, Mr. James still resides in his native Wales – at least, I’m led to believe that he does, from my numerous and often fruitless searches.


The truth ultimately uncovered by Harpur and Iles concerning the  failed undercover operation is genuinely shocking – at least, it was to me. Meanwhile, the antic diversions of  other characters continue unimpeded. I venture to say that only in a Harpur and Iles novel would the reader encounter a crook known as Empathy Abidan who, when in a car with his mates on the way to administer a corrective beating to a wayward member of the firm, likes nothing better than to fire up the sound system so they can all listen to German lieder by Schumann, Webern, and on occasion, Mahler.

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