Mystery Fiction: Bill James Crime Novelist Extraordinaire
The Alex Grant Column
15, 1929 in Cardiff, Wales.
Happy Birthday, Bill
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, Harpurs 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 todays 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 Youd 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 Harpurs adulterous wife.
The writer fulfilled the requirements of his doctorate in 1975 by submitting
a thesis on Anthony Powells 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 Leonards "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 Millers 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
< Reply to this Article