Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part One: Bill James

October 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

9781780290430_p0_v1_s260x420  Play Dead is the thirtieth Harpur & Iles novel. I’ve read about twenty books in this series. They’re a really fast read – too fast, because I’m always left wanting more (as opposed to weightier tomes that lumber along at a snail’s pace until you want to yell “Get on with it already!). Play Dead clocks in at 220 pages – pages filled with James’s signature mix of frivolity, wit, savagery, profanity, and literary allusions. The prose style is so distinctive, it could belong to no other writer that I know of. (‘Col’ is what Iles calls his second in command, Colin Harpur.)

Apparently, in one of the local papers Iles had noticed a theatre advertisement for a play called The Revenger’s Tragedy, by somebody centuries ago he had heard of, or by somebody else he’d also heard of. One of the things about Iles was he’d heard of quite a few people from the past, not just  the obvious like Nelson or Moses, but less familiar folk. This play was on at the King’s theatre in the city centre. He said: “As you’ll know, Col, some give the authorship to Tourneur, spelled with two U’s, not just the one as in “turner and fitter,” but many claim it for Thomas Middleton, and others say others. There are scholars who earn a fair screw by saying, “I’d bet on Cyril Tourneur with two U’s” or “I’d bet on Thomas Middleton,” or “I think X or Y or Z because of the unique way he uses the word ‘and’.” The piece has killings, rape, seduction, procurement by the hero of his sister – really zestful, joyous, lip-smacking evil. The hero talks to his very dead mistress, calling her “the bony lady,” meaning not that she’s anorexic but a skeleton.”

Among other things, this passage reminded me just why, all those years ago, I found my graduate school course in Elizabethan drama excluding Shakespeare so mind-boggling….

So, what’s this impromptu bit of literary criticism doing in the middle of a murder mystery? You have to read the novel to find out, and further, to get a handle on one of the strangest and most volatile working relationships in crime fiction.
Bill James – one of several pseudonyms used by James Allan Tucker –  was born in 1929 in South Wales, where he still resides. Having served as a Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War, he began his writing career as a journalist. A brief biography of Bill James can be found at the Severn House site. (I am most  grateful to Severn House for publishing the work of so many fine crime fiction authors.)

I was delighted to find this (relatively recent) in depth interview with Bill James at the Detectives Beyond Borders site. And I am in complete agreement with Alex Grant’s assessment, made in 2002, of James’s place in the pantheon of crime writers.

In Play Dead, Harpur and Iles are tasked with looking into possible corruption in another police force. The first phase of their investigation is described in the previous novel, Undercover. (It so happens that Iles has a particular animus against undercover operations. He has good reason for feeling that way.) In point of fact, over the course of this series, a long story arc unfolds. You don’t necessarily have to start reading at the very beginning, but the farther back you go, the more enjoyment you’ll get from the series.
In Addition to Undercover, I’ve reviewed Girls, PixIn the Absence of Iles, and Hotbed in this space.  In addition, I wrote a retrospective of the Harpur & Iles novels in 2007.

This is the only photograph I’ve managed to find of Bill James:


Coming soon: Part Two: Peter Turnbull.

1 Comment

  1. Yvette said,

    Never heard of this writer either. Jeez, where have I been? Anyway, thanks to you, I’m adding this series to my ever-expanding and unwieldy TBR list. Thanks, Roberta. I think. 🙂

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