Friday, June 26, 2009

Interview with the master, Part I: Detectives Beyond Borders talks with Bill James

Some of us remember where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot or World War II ended; I remember where I was when I first read Bill James. I was having coffee and a scone and passing the time of day at my local secondhand bookshop when the owner said, "Hey, you might like this" and handed me Roses, Roses, tenth novel in James' Harpur & Iles series.

Two pages in, I was Siddhartha Gautama under the bodhi tree. I was Hugh Hefner at that magical moment when his mother said, "Hugh! Stop studying so much. Go find a nice girl." I read a third of the book, brushed the crumbs from my upper lip, and said: "I'll take it."

James' world of cops and criminals is rich, dark and often very funny. And it offers some of the most gorgeous prose ever set to paper in crime or any other kind of fiction:

"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."
"To her, garrotting looked a sinister, damnable skill; in fact a kind of art, a kind of filthy art, and Iles had about him much of the good third/fourth-rate artist: arrogance, contempt for usual social and possibly legal standards, some flair, some posturing, some taste, some vision, and the irresistible impulse to create, or its complementary and sometimes necessary opposite, to wipe out."
Hotbed, twenty-sixth novel in the series, will appear this fall. In the first of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Bill James talks about his rich, dark world, the people who populate it, and why he chose two high-ranking police officers as his protagonists rather than the more conventional workaday cops.

(Read Part II of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)
Q: The first Colin Harpur novel appeared in 1985, and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles came along a bit later. What else was going on in British crime fiction at the time? What did you set out to do differently? Other than Anthony Powell, what writers haunted your imagination?

A: Most crime fiction deals with police at low or middling rank. I aimed to show two very highly placed officers who are committed to fighting crime, unbribable, but very fallible morally and socially. The books aim to shock and amuse by featuring two men who virtually run a police force but also conduct personal relationships in very unconventional, even dubious, ways.

I’ve said it boringly often, but the one book that influenced me above all was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins, for its dialogue and its subtle treatment of the fink situation.

Q: Iles is cruel to his chief, Mark Lane; fiercely protective of his own daughter; lecherous toward young women; yet he ultimately rejects The Girl with the Long Back. Tell me about the genesis of this complex, appalling and attractive character and how he made his way into a co-lead role in the series after not being around at the start.

A: Many detectives in fiction are portrayed as having personality faults, their creators knowing that otherwise their leading characters would be saintly and non-credible. But the faults tend to be forgivable and often part of macho-ness. Drinking too much because of job stress is a favourite failing; one I’ve used myself. I came to feel this kind of ploy was a sentimental cop(!)-out. I decided it would be interesting to see how readers reacted to someone with rather more off-putting (realistic?) flaws.

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.

Q: Families have loomed large in the Harpur & Iles books at least since Protection, when a fellow crook kidnaps “Tenderness” Mellick’s son. Why the emphasis on families, particularly criminals’ families?

A: I like the whole organisational bit. A police force is an organisation, so is a crooked firm, so is a family. I try to put all three alongside one another and examine the friction.

Q: A related question: One motif of the series is the strange ways people build families in changing times: Harpur with his daughters and his young girlfriend. Panicking Ralph, comically overprotective of his own daughters. Iles, his wayward wife, and their baby girl. What attracted you to families as a vehicle for social comedy? For that matter, why daughters rather than sons?

A: This is part answered in 3. Daughters are more markedly outside the cop-crook scene. Sons might inherit a criminal empire. Girls probably wouldn't. I solicit their detached view, which can be funny and sharp. (Not all readers like Harpur's daughters, though. Too flip and know-all?)

Q: Families are not the only recurring motif. There are the hypersensitivity about sending officers undercover, and the persistent girlfriend who presses Harpur and Iles to probe the case of her weak, hapless criminal mate. Among other things, these create continuity. Talk about these recurring themes, why you keep coming back to them. Feel free to name any that I missed.

A: I’m a bit wary of pointing out recurring themes. They might look like repetition. However, undercover is an obsession of mine. Possibly it’s the influence of spy novels – le Carré etc. I’ve written spy novels myself and occasionally do one now: in fact, I currently have one on offer to a publisher, and the signs are promising. Secrecy, cover-ups, play-acting fascinate me. Harpur and Iles have to rehouse and hide a former super-grass in Wolves of Memory. Undercover gives great openings for dramatic irony — that is, where the reader know more than some of the characters. This can give an added complexity and shiftiness to dialogue.

I find the tensions and moral/legal/ethical problems of undercover work a very useful story source. For example, how far in criminality should an undercover officer go to convince a crooked gang he’s a genuine member? Think of the undercover officer in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. I won't describe the tricky points there, in case it gives away the surprise, for someone who hasn’t seen the film, but they are very tricky.
(Read Part II of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Anonymous marco said...

If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face.

I remember when you mentioned that quote. A while later I did buy that book, and it doesn't exactly mean what it seems to mean at first sight,right?

June 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, it's meant to be enigmatic. Iles is widely thought to have been responsible for two deaths in an earlier book, but James never comes out and says, "Yup, Iles did it." That uncertainty is a fine touch, I think, one of the pleasures of the books, not because the reader must solve the mystery -- there is no mystery to be solved -- but because the reader and the characters must live with it.

June 28, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

No, what I meant was that when you read the phrase it makes you think of the trope of the policeman worn down by the deaths caused by his errors/failings (Scudder,Tom Thorne) or unable to protect friends or family (Charlie Parker) and that's definitely not the case here.

v-word: spete

June 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That had never occurred to me -- that that opening might be a slightly more poetic version of an old crime-fiction trope. No, James does something much different. His crime fiction is in no way typical.

June 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anyone reading this who likes what Bill James has to say about his fascination with organizations, be they a police force, a criminal firm or a family, will like his set pieces of the dinner meetings betweeen the rival/partner gangsters Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale. There is some great fun with flip charts in Easy Streets.

June 30, 2009  

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