Bill James’s Colin Harpur and Desmond Iles series is remarkable for leaving so many loose ends dangling at the conclusion of each novel. Part of James’s approach is that he is writing not only individual books but also one giant novel in which the events in one book have ramifications in a later work. In some cases, the two protagonists, Harpur and Iles, receive equal attention. In others, one is more prominent than the other. In some, the villains overshadow the veteran police officers, though James does not glamorize or romanticize criminals. No matter how well dressed or how many adult education courses they complete, they remain ruthless thugs.
According to James, he does not strive for realism, preferring to create a stylized universe with some realistic touches. This approach makes the often unusual events facing his police have a dreamlike logic. In addition to the setting, the time is also vague, with none of the characters ever getting any older. All the events seem to be occurring in an eternal present.
Throughout the Harpur and Iles series, James favors the down-to-earth Harpur over the rather pompous Iles. However, the assistant chief constable is never a caricature, the target of easy irony. Charming and smart, though not as smart as he likes to think, Iles is a fully realized creation. He and Harpur, the Everyman, together represent a single complex and flawed personality. Both make mistakes. Each is aware of at least some of his flaws. They have a superficial resemblance to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis and to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, especially the adversarial relationship of the latter.
The best crime fiction, as with Chandler, Leonard, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell, Adrian McKinty, and many others, is highly literary. James’s novels stand out for downplaying many genre conventions, especially the significance of plot. Although each Harpur and Iles book has a basic premise, James uses it merely as a starting point to delve more deeply into character and mood. Not only are some crimes not fully resolved, but also the police often carry on the most perfunctory of investigations. “Villains will be villains” seems to be the police officers’ philosophy, and as long as the criminals kill each other and not the general populace, everything is under control. Though James has been called the darkest, least optimistic of British crime writers, he is sympathetic to but amused by the variety of human foibles adrift in his corrupt milieu. He has also been termed grimly jocular.
James loves giving colorful names to his criminals. Minor thugs are known as Sashsaying Vernon and Mildly Sedated. One ironically called Tenderness Mellick is especially vicious. Panicking Ralph Ember remains a crime boss despite his well-known tendency to become easily flustered. Cohorts even call him Panicking to his face.
Central to James’s style are allusions to popular culture, especially films. Panicking Ralph Ember frequently mentions his resemblance to the young Charlton Heston. After a season of French films, Iles has his hair cut in the manner of Jean Gabin. Such references underscore how both police officers and criminals are constantly aware of role-playing.
Some of James’s touches sneak up on readers. Not only are the Harpur and Iles tales full of young women, but also everyone, both police officers and criminals, seem to have daughters instead of sons....
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