As a rule, literature, unlike life, does not condone the violent deaths of the young. Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov goes so far as to question the existence of a God who allows the slaughter of children. Top Banana, the thirteenth in Bill James’ Harpur & Iles mystery series begins with the gangland-style disposal of a thirteen-year-old dropout turned drug courier named Mandy, and ends with the reprisal murder of her slayer. In the 250 pages between, James stakes out a moral playground in which the corrupt on both sides devise rules for games of accommodation with a single disclaimer. Heed must be paid to Mandy Walsh’s death.
Top Banana introduces a Sidney Greenstreet title figure, Mansel Shale, the man who would be kingpin of the drug trade. A figure of tarnished elegance in thought and deed, he lives in a rectory, drives a Jaguar with chauffeur, and collects pre-Raphaelite art. Shale plays hide-and-seek with Chief Constable Mark Lane, who suffers from “heavy Catholic notions of responsibility” that jar with those of his assistant chief, Desmond Iles. For the chief, the only defense against evil is to infiltrate the drug gangs. Iles has a more subtle idea: let the dealers police themselves while playing their game of quid- pro-quo. It is the precarious tension between rectitude and mischief that produces a trio of domino-effect homicides. The last of these—silencing a professional go-between named Jantice (rhymes with mantis)—concludes with appropriate ambiguity, a morality tale disguised as a police procedural.
As in previous entries in this series, it is Detective Chief Supt. Colin Harper who works between the extreme stances of his superiors and, in Top Banana, takes a child’s death for what it is: a reference for even darker intimations.