Saturday, May 29, 2010

Home, James, or Harpur & Iles get back to basics

Readers of long-running crime-fiction series like to talk about how authors keep their series fresh, with love, death and alcohol being primary instruments of change. But authors can be better off sticking with what they do best.

Hotbed, twenty-sixth in Bill James' Harpur & Iles series, dispenses with such recent novelties as Eastern European competition for the series' established drug dealers (Girls) or the absence of Harpur (In the Absence of Iles). Instead, James concentrates on what he does so well: deceit, mistrust, evasion, and fear of betrayal, lavishly rendered in gorgeous, flamboyant, theatrically self-conscious prose.

Here the antagonists are Mansel Shale and (Panicking) Ralph Ember, the drug barons of long standing whose uneasy alliance is threatened, as successful businesses will be these days, by mutual fear that one will try to achieve a monopoly by eliminating the other. Here, too, the rivalries and mutual jealousies of Harpur, the detective chief superintendent, and his manic boss, are highlighted, the accent a bit more on Harpur's thoughts about Iles and a bit less on Iles' manic rage and froth.

Ember, fearful of Shale's possible ambition, plants a spy in Shale's rival drugs firm, the spy disappears and comes to a bad end, and the dance of deceit begins. Ember's susceptible teenage daughter longs for the vanished underling. Shale fears that his off-stage ex-wife will disrupt his pending wedding. Shale's fiancee and the victim's actor brother are the latest in James' string of bothersomely clever outsiders threatening the uneasy peace by asking disturbingly probing questions.

James is more conscious than ever of the series' theatricality, a theatricality of words more than of gestures. The invokes Jacobean drama, as critics and reviewers have done in discussing the Harpur & Iles series. Here are few of those words:
"Harpur had often heard Iles quote that guru he'd mentioned, Sartre, who said, `Hell is other people,' though that, apparently, didn't stop him shagging oodles of them. Naturally, Iles said it in French first, and then generously translated for Harpur. And sometimes Harpur would think, Yes, hell is other people, such as Iles."

(Read Part I and Part II of the
Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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22 Comments:

Blogger Gary Corby said...

I love that excerpt.

Wow, 26 in the series now. That is very impressive.

So I have to ask: what is the longest running mystery series ever? Without any research whatsoever, I'm guessing Poirot.

May 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I feel as if I've brought some light to the world if I can get someone interested in reading Bill James, and I'll try to remember to post another excerpt to tantalize you even more.

I've sometimes wondered what the longest-running series is. When did Simenon begin writing his Maigrets, and how long did he keep it up?

James' series is the longest-running of which I've read every book. The twenty-seventh is to be published next year.

May 30, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I loved the pieces of wry, understated humour you quoted here, Peter.
I dread to think you may have persuaded me to play 'catch-up, but at the very least I must check this guy out, because I've never even heard of him, which is odd given the number of arts reviews programmes I listen to.

Paul M. Cain was a great recommendation, made all the more so by the fact that he also wrote the screenplay for 'The Black Cat'; I think of all the other writers you've also recommended in your blog since I've discovered it, James might just be the next great 'discovery'

June 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You ought to go back and read some of my previous posts about Bill James. I'll occasionally make a post out of a passage of his prose when I have nothing much else to say. He's that good.

June 07, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, can you tell me the names of any books in the series you were disappointed with, even if relatively so.
And also your Top Five, if you can recall enough.
I'll probably buy a few of them rather than keep borrowing whatever I can track down in the local library system.
Thanks

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I disappointed with The Girl With the Long Back, which contains some delicious, acid-tipped lines but whose theme is thin. I'd save In the Absence of Iles until after one has read more of the later books. I was also not a huge fan of Wolves of Memory, though I think it made the Dagger short list.

The following is the core of the series, an epic comedy of middle-class aspiration among criminals, and life, love and betrayal among cops.

9. Gospel (1992)
10. Roses, Roses (1993)
11. In Good Hands (1994)
12. The Detective is Dead (1995)
13. Top Banana (1996)
14. Panicking Ralph (1997)
15. Lovely Mover (1998)
16. Eton Crop (1999)
17. Kill Me (2000)
18. Pay Days (2001)
19. Naked at the Window (2002)

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Add No. 8, Astride a Grave, to that list.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Thanks
I'll probably buy at least 3 or 4 from that lot to add to my personal crime fiction 'library', as he's definitely a 'keeper'.
and I'll probably see whats also available in my local library

btw, and I don't think I said it to you when I was asking about the serial killer in crime fiction, but I didn't care for his serial killer, or, indeed, schoolgirl's 'voice' in 'The Lolita Man'
(mind you, I can't recall ever much caring for that particular device).
He should have steered clear of it.

btw2, I was reminded of the killing of Jesse James by the murder in 'Halo Parade'

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was also not a fan of the girl's voice, but those were James' early days as a novlist. He never uses the device again.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

In the end I ended up ordering almost all of those in your list, plus the omnibus, plus one of the later books, 'Girls', at good knockdown prices.
(and most of them in hardback)

From synopses I read on Amazon he also seems to have developed a number of major criminal characters over the series which should make it even more interesting.

Also it should be interesting to see how the relationship between Lane and Iles develops: Lane was only sketchily portrayed in 'The Halo Parade'; not dissimilar to the limited portrait of Iles in the first novel in the series.

I've also got a Ross McDonald on order: I get the feeling that he might be close to 'The Long Goodbye' of Chandler, and, 'ipso facto' should prove a very rewarding 'discovery' for me

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't want to create too many spoilers, but the development of major criminal characters, "Panicking Ralph" Ember in particular, is one of the series; outstanding features, maybe its most outstanding. That development is the main theme of the middle books in the series, roughly speaking the ones on my list.

The series hit the doldrums when the theme ran its course. "Girls" is one of James' efforts to escape the lull with new bad guys: Albanians (if I remember correctly) as the forces behind the violence.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I don't want you to post many spoilers, either,- [looks furtively over shoulder in half-expectation of catching sight of a leering, coil-sprung, McKinty] , - but would you say his Iles character will come to be seen as his greatest single creation?

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His greatest single creation could be Panicking Ralph Ember.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

...as Barry Davies would say,...."in-ter-es-ting,....ver-ry in-ter-es-ting!"

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We North Americans would attribute that to Arte Johnson.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

You bet your sweet bippy!

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Say goodnight, Dick.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Goodnight Dick!
thats without the 'comma'

July 20, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Just finished 'Astride A Grave'
VERRRY funny; best to date, and, yes, Panicking Ralph is a great creation
(and 'Mother', especially in her Fidel Castro drag!)

I recall seeing 'El Cid' in the cinema as a lad of about 8 or 9, but I've never seen it since

Peter, I'm just wondering how much of the specifically British humourous references do you pick up on.
I presume you know the name Enoch Powell, and caught that joke.
But even things like the significance of the write-up in 'The Independent' newspaper, for example.

And did you find increase in quality over its immediate predecessor, as you read each book?

September 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Enoch Powell -- Rivers of blood guy, right?

No doubt I missed some specifically British references, but I'd have no way of knowing I missed them unless someone pointed them out to me, which no one has.

It's hard for me to judge whether the books progressed steadily because I read them helter-skelter, as I could get them, for the first eighteen or so. If the Harpur & Iles books were Italian art, the first seven or so books are the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: a time of brilliant innovation. Books eight through fifteen are Florence and then Rome until 1520: Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo all at the height of their powers, learning from each other and producing work never surpassed. The later books are like Italian art after Raphael dies in 1520: uneven, experiments that sometimes work well, at its peak pretty damned good.

September 03, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Yep, right about Enoch
(who actually was an MP in my late mother's home turf,in South Down, after he got kicked out of his home, Wolverhampton territory)

I suppose the very fact that you're such a huge fan, and advocate, of the series means that the humour 'translates' well across the Atlantic.
And thus achieves their aims, even if not every reader can pick up all the peculiarly British nuances, and references

September 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep. I don't recall ever once being puzzled by any reference in any of the books. But then, as you suggest, one need not get every joke, reference and nuance to enjoy a book.

Ken Bruen and Peter Temple are among Bill James' admirers, so I'd say he travels well.

September 03, 2010  

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