Friday, May 09, 2008

Friday's forgotten books: Bill James' Harpur and Iles

Patti Abbott frets over Forgotten Books. "I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness," she writes, and she asks other bloggers to help out by retrieving a book from the ranks of the forgotten. I like her idea so much that I'm suggesting a whole series: Bill James' Harpur & Iles novels.

The books are not exactly forgotten; the series is now up to twenty-three novels with a twenty-fourth due this year. But James' brand of dark betrayal, darker humor and keen social comedy has remained a connoisseur's taste, beloved of critics for the rich beauty of its prose style, among other features, but never selling in the mass numbers that its excellence deserves.

What makes the series great? Its delicious looks at the upward aspirations of its gangsters. Its funny, touching takes on family life. Its teaming of the vain, violent, ungovernable Iles and his partner, Harpur, who sometimes deflects and sometimes slyly returns Iles' insults, yet who is capable of betrayals of his own. Its "brilliant combination of almost Jacobean savagery and sexual betrayal with a tart comedy of contemporary manners," according to John Harvey, who ought to know a thing or two about crime fiction. And the beauty of the writing:

"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."
That's from In Good Hands, and it's haunting and beautiful. James can also be laugh-out-loud funny while remaining just as haunting, as in the opening paragraph from The Detective is Dead:
"When someone as grand and profitable as Oliphant Kenward Knapp was suddenly taken out of the business scene, you had to expect a bloody big rush to grab his domain, bloody big meaning not just bloody big, but big and very bloody. Harpur was looking at what had probably been a couple of really inspired enthusiasts in the takeover rush. Both were on their backs. Both, admittedly, showed only minor blood loss, narrowly confined to the heart area. Both were eyes wide, mouth wide and for ever gone from the stampede."
The series hits its stride around its seventh book and becomes a kind of grand and cracked portrait of Britain's shifting urban and social landscape at the end of the twentieth century, of the murky boundaries between police and criminals, of suburban social climbers who happen to be killers and drug dealers, of the strange ways people build families in changing times. The books are violent, dark, and often very funny. And their author just happens to be the best prose stylist who has ever written crime fiction in English.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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16 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

Were you having an impish moment when you wrote that last sentence, Peter?

May 09, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. A whole series to discover. Great and thanks.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Impish and perhaps hyperbolic, but with a purpose. I suspect that no one on this Earth has read enough crime fiction to make such a judgment. But he is the finest crime-fiction prose stylist I have ever read. Did you have in mind folks like G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene or even Joseph Conrad, if one wants to call The Secret Agent crime fiction? If so, I shall have replies ready.

Patti, I especially recommend books seven (Astride a Grave) through sixteen (Eton Crop). The preceding books are good, but James really finds his themes in the seventh.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

I had no one in mind at all, Peter. I really did think that perhaps you were being a touch mischievous, leading us to Donnybrook Fair, not so much because of your nomination of James as of the very notion of a "best prose stylist who has ever written crime fiction in English." I do think James is fine -- there is a oneness of style with content that I think is the essence of artful prose. I think in crime fiction, and especially on the noirish side, American writers are particularly notable for this, and so I think of Raymond Chandler, James Sallis, Mitchell Smith, Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, and a few others. Elsewhere and in other veins, perhaps Giles Blunt, Michael Dibdin, John Harvey, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, John Lawton, Reginald Hill, Peter Dickinson. But this is invidious stuff and there are surely others just not in mind at the moment. Of those I particularly admire in this regard, I really couldn't select one as the best.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, maybe just a bit mischievous. But doing so felt better than hedging and fudging. I have read a number of the other authors you suggested, and all merit consideration in any discussion of prose style among crime writers, perhaps Hill especially. But being deliberately provocative can be fun.

Your comment about oneness of style with content shall likely spark further comment from me.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Steve Allan said...

I'm really surprised that James isn't better known. The Harpur and Iles books (at least the four or so that I've read) are so good - and yes, James is one hell of a stylist. he's the Welsh Ken Bruen.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I jumped on the Bill James bandwagon five or six years ago, when I first started reading crime fiction. I mean, I remember where I was and what I was doing the first time someone handed me one of his novels. It is a mystery to me, too, why he is not better known. Is he too literary for crime-fiction circles and too crime-fiction for literary circles?

I'd say he has a more theatrical style than Ken Bruen. If Bruen is something like an Angry Young Men playwright, Bill James is something like a Christopher Marlowe. I've read all the Harpur & Iles books, seven or eight of them more than once, and I will look forward to the next one, which apparently will have the intriguing title In the Absence of Iles. Which of the books have you read?

By the way, I see from your profile that you liked The Ice Harvest. I've posted some comments about Scott Phillips here.

May 09, 2008  
Anonymous Katherine Howell said...

Peter, you've persuaded me! Books 7 to 16 are now on the tbr list.

May 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm gratified. I remember the afternoon when I was sitting in a secondhand bookshop, and the laconic owner handed me a copy of Roses, Roses (tenth in the series) and said, "Here. You might like this." (Or was he phlegmatic? Perhaps he was laconic on his mother's side, phlegmatic on his father's.)

I had never read anything like it, said "I've never read anything like it." The rest is history.

Once you've read a book or two, let me know what you think.

May 09, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read Roses, Roses, my first Harpur and Iles. I liked some of the writing and certainly the plot, but it drove me crazy that all the characters speak in the same voice; Harpur's teenage daughters' conversation is indistinguisable from Iles' except for the subject matter. Also at times the characters seemed to be speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. My two cents.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There is something in what you say. Commentators often invoke drama when talking about Bill James, and I find some of his best books delightfully theatrical. The similarity of speaking styles may contribute to that effect, as if the characters are speaking lines. I like the effect, and it might be a worthwhile experiment to keep your comment in mind as I reread one of the books. Thanks very much for a thought-provoking comment.

March 03, 2010  
Anonymous jwarthen said...

A very late addition to this commentary... But having stumbled on this encomium last fall, I ordered up a bunch of James from AbeBooks, and am now finishing the sixth. That I paid little attention to chronology is important: reading THE DETECTIVE IS DEAD first, from near the middle of the series, left me confused enough to recommend a more serial approach-- encountered in its full bloom, a first-time reader hardly knows what to make of Iles' baroque nastiness. In his insults, his lunatic theatricality, Iles resembles more than any other literary characters the crazed megalomaniacs of Elizabethan drama-- say, the syphlitic Cardinal of DUCHESS OF MALFI or the incestuous "hero" of 'TIS A PITY... One of those-- or Basil Fawlty. The toxicity of Iles' presence assumes almost supernatural proportions, since no professional department would tolerate for long such a nutter. Much as I admire James' creation of a complex fictional world, the character of Iles is a rogue- element that appears to have run completely out of authorial control.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's never too late to discuss Bill James; thanks for the comment.

You're not the first reader to invoke revenge tragedies in discussing James, though you are the first I've seen to throw Basil Fawlty into the mix. I suspect James would be delighted.

As for no department's being willing to tolerate an Iles for long, James made this interesting declaration in an interview I did with himL

"Also I tried to understand the psyche of a born second-in-command — someone who had a big job, but not the biggest. Iles will never make it to chief constable. What kind of personality does this produce? Answer: not eternally sweet; sometimes manic."

June 06, 2011  
Anonymous Paula A Treichler said...

I also remember where I was when a friend asked whether I'd read Bill James. "The baseball guy?" I asked. Well, no. It only took a few pages (think I started with the 3rd or 4th) to know that here was something seriously special. A bit disorienting though, like a previous poster remarked, to read them out of order so I too soon went to Abe Books and began assembling the whole series. I've now read through them all three times. Though distinct from Ed McBain's 87th precinct series or the Martin Beck novels, the Harpur and Iles books create an imaginary universe that is like and unlike our own. Hence, among other things, the dense fantastical language, which even two-bit hoods spout as readily as the crazed crafty brilliant Iles. But I haven't been very successful in recommending James to others. Puzzling. Very glad to have happened on this conversation, despite having joined in late. Thanks. Paula Treichler

December 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's never too late to talk about Bill James. And I like your description of Harpur & Iles' universe. It's like are own, but in a twisted version.

I see that there's a new Harpur & Iles novel, Vacuum, unread by me. I will order it forthwith.

And I can’t resist a bit of showing off: Here’s a picture (lower left) of Bill James and me from Crimefest 2010.

What are your favorite books in the series?

December 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And here’s my interview with him, if you’d care to take a look.

December 26, 2011  

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