John Harvey Essay - Critical Essays


John Harvey learned the writing craft well while writing dozens of novels, primarily Westerns, between the mid-1970’s and mid-1980’s. His acquired skills have been particularly evident since 1989, when he published Lonely Hearts, the initial entry in the Charlie Resnick series of police procedurals. It is to Harvey’s credit that he makes it seem easy to bring together various elements of storytelling—characterization, dialogue, setting, voice, plotting, and pacing—to create a coherent whole. He produces novels whose overall effect is synergistic: works that result in much greater effect than the sum of their parts. Harvey’s unflinchingly hard-boiled, naturalistic Resnick novels are not so much read as they are experienced; they are masterful examples of what Samuel Coleridge meant when he wrote of the writers’ goal to create a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Harvey accomplishes this effect through stylistically simple, straightforward, reportorial writing that does not clamor for attention.

Resnick and the other characters who stalk the pages of Harvey’s novels are first and foremost authentic and believable. Each of the players has unique qualities: small quirks, flaws, habits, interests, prejudices, and beliefs that bring them to life as individuals. They speak as real people do—in non sequiturs, with profanity, in darkly humorous asides and insults, in lies and half-truths designed to save face or hide exposure—stuttering and fumbling in their attempts to express the inexpressible. Charlie Resnick in particular is a brilliant creation, a police officer who feels sympathy and compassion for both those who abide by the law and those who break it, because he knows that life is hard and filled with temptations to which anyone can succumb and that existence does not consist merely of black-and-white absolutes but rather a succession of grays.

Told in third person from various viewpoints, central of which is Resnick’s, the plots are almost mundane because they deal with ordinary—though frequently horrific—crimes. These are often the result of dysfunctional families in which abused children grow up to become abusers. Other interrelated themes concern the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, or the animosity among natives and aliens in British society. Whatever their root causes, conflicts suddenly and inevitably spin out of control with violent consequences for perpetrator and victim alike. Resnick’s modern, technologically advanced world is one of isolation, despair, uncertainty, and confusion, which the author has keenly observed and deftly drawn.

The language of Harvey’s novels is deceptively simple, with few similes, metaphors, or other literary devices cluttering a narrative propelled by a common, everyday vocabulary. Dialogue, reproducing the speech patterns and regional inflections of different classes of citizens, carries the heaviest burden, advancing plot, shading character, and establishing atmosphere. Suspense comes through the presentation of a variety of disparate perspectives that slowly coalesce, as characters are placed in jeopardy, suspects...

(The entire section is 1283 words.)