Peter Rozovsky writes the Detectives Beyond Borders Blog. He has written essays and introductions for Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction and The Cultural Detective: Reflections on the Writing Life in Thailand. He reviews international crime fiction for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a newspaper subeditor, a freelance writer and crime-fiction editor, and the father of Noir at the Bar.
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."
What makes Bill James so much fun to read? Here is part of what James told me in an interview: “I tend to get bored reading books where the dialogue is very sequential and reasonable.”
The same goes with James’ narration. Here is a snippet from I Am Gold, Book 27 in the series:
"Harpur thought the greeting, regreeting, fizzled with emptiness and formula. Naturally it did. It came from the manual — Besieging for Dummies, or something like. And, just as naturally, this boy, this boy `John' in there could recognize smooth-textured bullshit. Very likely these calls would contain nothing but. In fact, perhaps ultimately there'd be so much he would get disorientated by it, half smothered by it, gently and mercilessly chinwagged into collapse and surrender by it. But, maybe he recognized this hazard and left the phone dead for spells while he got his breath back."
That’s not a take on hostage negotiations one is likely to find in most crime novels.
What makes the series great, other than James’ ability to make routine passages deliciously funny? Its delicious looks at the upward aspirations of its gangsters. Its funny, touching takes on family life. It’s teaming of the vain, violent, ungovernable ACC Desmond Iles and his partner, DCI Colin 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 gorgeous prose:
"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 of 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 may be the best prose stylist who has ever written crime fiction in English.