A thinking man's exploration
The thinking man's crime novel in this case is Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand, for its nuanced view of migrant life in the United States and for its final pages. The novel offers a bang-up prologue of even higher tension than those to McKinty's Michael Forsythe books. Its final twist resembles those in Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels, in which the powerless are stripped by the powerful of almost everything that anchors them in this world.
In between, McKinty's first-person narrator/protagonist lives the life of an illegal Mexican immigrant in Colorado, a life replete with indignities, but also with astute observation and quiet moments of daily life and the odd behavior of one town's movie-star colony. The author is at least as interested in imagining his way into the lives of people different from himself as he is in telling a suspenseful story.
The exploration belongs to Bill James' In the Absence of Iles, twenty-fifth novel in the superlative Harpur and Iles series. The middle novels of the series especially, from Astride a Grave (1991) to Eton Crop (1999), are dark and humorous explorations of aspirations to respectability among the criminal classes and of the strange lives of odd, sometimes improvised families on both sides of the law.
Before that, James had written about a police undercover operation gone wrong, in the series' third book, The Halo Parade (1987). He returned to the theme several times in later novels, notably Kill Me (2000), in which an officer selected to infiltrate a criminal gang meets an exceedingly weird psychologist at a training course intended to prepare her for the operation.
Now, though, James explores the issue more thoroughly, concentrating and consolidating his fascination with police undercover work, its perils and its effects on those who send officers into harm's way.
Thus, an officer demonstrating for a gathering of police chiefs, particularly Assistant Chief Constable Esther Davidson, the skills required to work under cover:
"The cloth held to his shoulders in the affectionate, unruffled, congratulatory way a midwife might present a just-born baby to its mother. ... Not much of the waistcoat showed under his buttoned-up jacket, but Esther could tell it fitted right, and the pockets contained nothing bulky to destroy the general line. ...or
"But then he turned his back for a moment and when he slowly spun and faced them once more seemed suddenly ... seemed suddenly what she'd originally expected: nervy and hesitant. ... His body signalled prodigious cringe now. ...
"Esther realized they were watching a performer who could have made it big in the theatre."
"Esther felt she had fallen into a sort of voodoo superstition, as if scared that to flout any part of the instructions from A and B and the rest of the Fieldfare performers would bring big punishment — big punishment signifying loss of the Out-located officer and failure of the operation."James makes several interesting choices to narrow the focus on the officers who plan the undercover operation that drives the book, not all of which can be revealed without spoilers. One that can is that, shockingly for an author who has given crime fiction some of its funniest, grubbiest and most shabbily noble criminals, James gives no criminal anything more than a passing mention through the novel's first hundred or so pages.
More later, but for now, the novel's finest example yet of James' typical dark, wry humour, this from Officer B, the cool-headed counterpart to the flamboyant Officer A discussed above:
"Family enmities are generally more vicious than any others. Think of the punch-ups and knifings at typical weddings, christening parties and funerals."© Peter Rozovsky 2008