Sunday, August 03, 2008

Pix: More dark, gorgeous prose from Bill James

This twenty-fourth novel in Bill James' Harpur & Iles series focuses a bit less on Panicking Ralph Ember and a bit more on Mansel Shale. Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur's daughters take their usual helping/hindering comic turn, and they are delightfully, if somewhat darkly, echoed in the drug-dealer Shale's more high-strung children. Pix also contains a bit more suspense and mystery than previous books in the series.

Beyond this, the novel revisits a number of characters and situations from earlier novels: The evasive cross-talk between Harpur and his supervisor, Iles. The vital informant Jack Lamb, fond of grand gestures, nighttime meetings and military trappings. Another probing, insistent woman who worries all with harrying, dangerous, occasionally effective prodding of the police to find her villainous, disappeared, perhaps dead boyfriend.

Mostly, though, there is James' prose, dark, funny, baroquely gorgeous, unequalled in crime fiction and perhaps elsewhere as well:

"`The house — in a poor state? Some intrusion? Is that what you're saying, Manse?'

"`You know the state it's in, you sodding smarm prince,' Shale replied. `You know about intrusions.'"
"`These are instinctive with me, Harpur —humanity and perception.'

"`Anyone can see those in your face, sir.'

"`I do notice people in here staring at me, perhaps reading those qualities.'

"`No, that's because most of them recognize and hate us, sir.'


"`You more, because of rank,' Harpur said.

"Iles smiled, gratified. `But undercurrents, Col.'"

Here is a Bill James bibliography. Books seven through sixteen in the Harpur & Iles series, Astride a Grave through Eton Crop, may be the finest sustained piece of storytelling in all of crime fiction. Here's an interview with James from Crimespree Magazine to read before you go shopping for the books. And you will, I hope, do that shopping.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, thanks for this. It's a treat to know there's a new James. If there were only five thriller/crime writers I could read for the rest of my life, James would be high on the list.

I don't see the fall-off in quality you do in the later books, but if you see it, it's probably there.

August 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James would be one of my desert-island crime writers, too. Pix was a special treat because I didn't know it was coming. For some reason I had known about the novel due out later this year, but not Pix.

In any case, I might refer to a loss of focus rather than a loss of quality in some of the more recent books, as uncomfortable as I am with the presumption that term implies. I think that once Ralph Ember had risen as high as he was going to go, and once Iles had succeeded in driving his old chief, Mark Lane, nuts, James was left without two themes that had seen the series through quite a number of excellent novels.

Here, he's gone back to some of the old motifs, but he's using them in new ways. One example is the offering of Shale's siblings as a dark version of Harpur's daughters. I will say that even in the weaker books, James would come up with chilling, funny, inimitable lines. Look at some of the young hooker's efforts to talk dirty in English in Girls, for example.

The title Pix, by the way, refers to Mansel Shale's well-established love of Pre-Raphaelite art, and I wonder if James shares that love or whether he is using it to poke fun at Shale.

August 10, 2008  

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