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Mystery Fiction: Bill James Crime Novelist Extraordinaire
The Alex Grant

Born August 15, 1929 in Cardiff, Wales.
Happy Birthday, Bill

Bill James:
Languishing in relative obscurity in North America and wholly underestimated except among the cognoscenti of the mystery genre of fiction, British novelist, Bill James (actual name: James Tucker) has created over the past two decades, a truly sinister series of 19 wry, bittersweet and Machiavellian books known as the Harpur-Iles set of novels.

These astoundingly terse (mostly 200 pages or so) blackly serio-comic novels center upon the devious exploits and unscrupulous misadventures of two luridly eccentric "top cops" in what I believe to be either Cardiff, Wales or Liverpool, England.
These "boys in blue" believe in screwing, blueing and tattooing (metaphorically) both civilians and crooks.

Chief Superintendent, Colin Harpur, a serial adulterer with women half his age, and eventually both a widower and a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) has no qualms about meteing out his own perverse brand of justice to the denizens of the criminal underworld warlord (think of actor, Charlton Heston in the 1966 period movie of that title – The Warlord).

Desmond Iles, Harpur’s boss, is an even more diabolical figure than his subordinate. Iles is utterly vain, a cuckold and an habitual customer for young black prostitutes. He is even more manipulative and far more ruthless than today’s tinpot tyrant, Saddam Hussein.

Iles is a vengeful, unforgiving, Assistant Chief Constable, and eventually Assistant Crime Commissioner (ACC). A dapper ageing ladies’ man, he revels in excess and feels no qualms either about adopting the total-war tactics of his doppelgangers in the underworld.

James has published 19 of these exhilaratingly amoral Harpur Iles books. The first was You’d Better Believe It. The most recent in soft covers is Pay Days.

His masterpiece is the 10th book in the series Roses, Roses in which minute-by-minute, James details the excruciating events that culminate in the untoward murder of Harpur’s adulterous wife.
The writer fulfilled the requirements of his doctorate in 1975 by submitting a thesis on Anthony Powell’s mainstream literary twelve novel series A Dance to The Music of Time.
Subsequently James set out to create his own equivalent post-war series devoted not to the British toffee-nosed uppercrust but to the depraved, degenerate demimonde of drug-lords, payroll thieves, hold-up artist, kidnappers and their ilk.
James’ villains, such as "Panicking Ralph Ember" are worthy of Shakespeare. Only Elmore Leonard’s "bad" guys are equally cranky and charismatic. James dialogue is worthy of David Mamet or Dashiell Hammett. James command of the erotic would make Henry Miller’s toes curl up (and die!).

At 73, the author, slightly senior to Clint Eastwood, has created two unforgettable British "Dirty Harry" Callahans in Harpur and Iles – except that both these British bastards are highly sexual beings far removed from the Founding Fathers’ Puritanism of Inspector Harry Callahan.
James has, late in 2001, begun a new series – this time a tough-tender spy novel Split featuring Simon Abelard, a black surveillance expert. It is a searing and cannily worly depiction of a massive corporate crime wave and rampant gangsterism in the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

Bill James, for 20 years, has been a modern master of mystery suspense, an elder statesman who deserves world-wide recognition as an astonishing pungent reporter on the modern world.

© Alex Grant August 2002

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