Contribution (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Bill James is best known for his long-running Colin Harpur and Desmond Iles series. These books are unusual because they pay almost as much attention to the criminals as to the police, with both good and bad guys sharing characteristics, including a belief in self-improvement through higher education. James has said that he is equally interested in both sides of the law and that his novels are about the impossibility of controlling crime through conventional methods. He has cited George V. Higgins as the main influence on his work, calling The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) the greatest crime novel ever. Both writers share an interest in gritty urban settings and realistic, though playful dialogue.
The Harpur and Iles books are essentially exercises in mood and style, with James’s dialogue a distinctive blend of that of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, and especially Harold Pinter. His characters develop an almost-music-hall-like patter reminiscent of early Pinter plays. Although many prominent mystery and detective writers are highly productive, James is one of the few to have increased productivity and improved quality after turning fifty.
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Gould, John A. “Harpur, Iles, and the Shadow of Anthony Powell.” The Boston Globe, July 4, 2004, p. 8. Notes similarities between Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and James’s Harpur and Iles novels, particularly The Girl with the Long Back. Gould argues that the relationship between Powell’s Nick Jenkins and his nemesis Widmerpool is the model for James’s antiheroes.
James, Bill. Interview by Anthony Brockway. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/elizabeth.ercocklly/bill .htm. Excellent interview in which James discusses his Cardiff upbringing, his journalism career, his attitude toward crime fiction, and his literary influences.
Lenzer, Steve. “Crime and Punishment.” Review of Naked at the Window, by Bill James. The Weekly Standard 8, no. 41 (June 30, 2003): 31. Lengthy review examines not only the individual work but also James’s Harpur and Iles series, noting that the novels differ from the traditional detective novel in that many lack neat endings.
Pederson, Jay P., and Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf. St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, 4th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. A short overview of James’s work, including a brief interview.
Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2005. Contains chapters on police procedurals and hard-boiled detective fiction, including variants on these subgenres, which gives a context for understanding James’s unusual approach.