Pay Days

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This Bill James novel, featuring Superintendent Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, is an unusually well written and highly unconventional look at crime in an unnamed English coastal city. The widowed Harpur is raising two teenaged daughters and having an affair with a university student. He and Iles are always at odds only partly because Harpur once had an affair with Iles’s wife. Harpur feels sympathy for their chief, who is recovering from a breakdown, but Iles is openly antagonistic, suggesting the married chief is having a homosexual relationship with his pet officer.

The rivalry between Harpur and Iles is paralleled by that between Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale, heads of the local drug trafficking operations. Ember and Shale have learned to cooperate, though both secretly plot against each other. None of the four protagonists knows who killed the dealer or why, but the efforts of Ember and Shale to cover up the crime and the police to find the truth lead to more killings.

More darkly humorous than Reginald Hill’s similar Dalziel and Pascoe police procedurals, James’s novels depict a compelling moral quagmire in which none of the criminals is completely bad and the police are heavily flawed. Iles is nastier and more dangerous than any of the thugs he supposedly protects the public against.

Pay Days is highlighted by its offbeat touches. Harpur’s daughters taunt him about his much younger girlfriend and his questionable professional ethics. Shale is addicted to quoting The Godfather. Ember has pretensions to respectability, becoming active in environmental causes, protesting when his daughter’s posh school drops Latin and Greek. A politician blames the fiction of Martin Amis and the films of Quentin Tarantino for creating “moral confusion” among the educated. Best of all is the stylized dialogue resembling Harold Pinter crossed with Elmore Leonard. The vivid characters and hard-boiled style make Pay Days a compelling look at crime.