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