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April 25, 2010

Guilty Pleasure, Pleasurable Guilt?

Yeah, yeah, I know that bloggiquette says that you're not supposed to use the medium--especially a site with such a noble cause as "ARTicles"--as a dumping ground for previously unpublished work. But I plead two extenuating circumstances: 1) The piece, below, wasn't "rejected"; rather, the lit editor who greenlighted the essay decamped for foreign shores before it was irreversibly in the publication pipeline, and 2) I mentioned Bill James in my last entry, and want to post a fuller exegesis on his work. Anyway, it's not like I'm hogging finite space in a $5.95 magazine and depriving readers of that profile of John Tesh they were waiting for. So...

The first novel by Bill James (written under the name he was born with in Cardiff, Wales in 1929, James Tucker) concerned newspapering, his initial career. Titled "Equal Partners," it came out in 1959. His next-to-most-recent, "Making Stuff Up," published in 2006, is about what the author calls "the university creative writing industry." During the nearly half-century in between, James has constituted practically a novel-writing industry unto himself, concentrating on crime fiction, with a few diversions into espionage and, as though to keep himself literarily grounded, hatching a scholarly study of "The Novels of Anthony Powell" in 1976. But James's most successful project--and deservedly so--is also his largest: a 25-books-and-counting series of "Harpur and Iles" novels. The most recently published in the U.S. is "In the Absence of Iles," published in the U.S. by Norton in 2008.

Colin Harpur is a Detective Chief Superintendent--i.e., a plainclothes cop (the Brits seem to favor inflated titles for their law-enforcement ranks)--in an unnamed seaport city somewhere south of London. His immediate superior is Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles. The two are pitted in an ornate and violent minuet of truce and betrayal against local wholesalers of illegal drugs. (The meta-plot of the series courses an arc of its own, with occasional asterisks linking cited events to their occurrences in previous books.) "Against," however, needs to be qualified. Iles, a philosophical relativist, is also a complete pragmatist who cares far more about avoiding deadly turf wars than he does about preventing townsfolk from buying individual baggies or snorting the occasional line. This puts him and the ironically obedient Harpur at direct odds with their idealistic, morally absolutist, and nervous-breakdown-prone commander, Chief Mark Lane. Frequently, deadlier traffickers from London complicate matters by trying to move in on the lucrative trade.

Fairly normative stuff for crime novels, you might say. And nominally, you'd be right. But James adds a simple flip that turns the Harpur and Iles series into a twisty, perverse and somewhat surreal comedy of manners: His upper-tier policeman are, albeit ethical in ultimate purpose, distinctly amoral on the ground. Meanwhile, the drug-runners aspire desperately to bourgeois esteem...or at least the trappings of it. Their minions conduct retail sales, for instance, at a pretentious floating restaurant called the Eaton Boating Song. James has said he harbors the possibly quaint belief "that crooks want to buy their way to respectability. Half the people with inherited titles in the House of Lords come from families who, way back, were outlaws."

James's present-day brigands come with an assortment of monikers that make Damon Runyon seem like a model of nomenclaturive restraint: Lincoln W. Lincoln (a.k.a. Lovely Mover), Stan Stanfield, Beau Derek, Mansel Shale, Alfie Ivis, a skinny thug named Digby Lighthorn (who's sarcastically called Corporeal) and Ralph W. Ember, whose humiliating nickname--Panicking Ralph--derives from his sweat-drenched freezings-up in moments of crisis.

Ember is the most fully drawn of the villainous lot, bordering on sympathetic. Fancying himself a double for a Charlton Heston embellished with the gangster equivalent of a Prussian dueling scar, he also runs a legit, expensive, but inevitably tacky imitation of a brass-and-mahogany London club he calls The Monty. Ember writes letters to the editor on such weighty matters as preserving the environment and space exploration. At home on a house-and-grounds he grandly calls Low Pastures, Ember sequesters his older daughter abroad at a boarding school in Poitiers. With his younger child stuck (until he gets a little richer) in a local comprehensive, Ember is a parents' association crusader. It enrages him, for instance, that "Fay's school here had dropped Latin and Greek and was giving pupils the Classics only in translation[.] 'Soundbite Aeschylus,' he called it" ("Pay Days," 2001).

Ember's boojie unctuousness serves only to highlight what a nasty bastard he really is. "Panicking Ralph" (1997) opens with Ember having it off on a deserted beach with an acquaintance's wife named Christine. Spotting rivals with binoculars and guns clearly out to kill him, he grabs Christine by the wrist and flees. Ember survives the fusillade and escapes, but his paramour is killed and her body lies in the sand. On his way home from the near-miss, he pulls in at a pay phone and leaves a message, informing Christine's unsuspecting husband that his wife has been murdered. Reason? "Leslie was quite a tolerable lad and deserved this posthumous consideration."

The pinch in James's Harpur and Iles novels comes from the fact that his cops aren't much better than his villains. Desmond Iles--a character whom a reviewer in The Guardian has found to be "narcissistic, sly, vicious, lustful, [and] quite possibly insane"--is a thin-lipped Armani mannequin whom I imagine played by Jeremy Irons at his most Claus-von-Bulow slimy. Over the course of the series, Iles murders a few criminals with impunity, consorts with underage prostitutes and, for good measure, openly lusts after Harpur's teenage daughter. Like his assassinations, Iles's pedophilia has a revenge quotient. Harpur once had an affair with Iles's wife, and Iles can't let it go. At any time or place--stakeout, pursuit, or conference with the Chief--he can erupt, sometimes at the top of his lungs with spittle flying, with a spasm of payback. At other moments, he veritably whispers, telling Harpur about a conversation he and his now re-cozied spouse were having about her former lover. "I recall her lighting on some almost witty fragment of your repertoire," Iles informs Harpur, "and telling me you could do an amusing Bronx accent. This was the only small plus she could salvage now" ("The Girl with the Long Back," 2003).

Iles can display an icy mercilessness toward even innocent people. Hearing an account of a drug dealer's child trying to keep her gunshot father from dying by plugging his wound with her removed nightdress, he simply sighs, "So much sad nakedness" ("Pay Days"). Underneath, Iles is wound neurotically tighter than a dime-store watch. He cannot, for instance, abide the sight in the mirror of his own Adam's apple. The bobbing bump betrays him as tremulously vulnerable, like any terrified bystander at a dope-dealer shootout. Which is another of James's pointed reversals: Here's a top-level British cop without a trace of stiff upper lip. In fact, Iles's fairly quivers, making him as atypical a crime novel character as a soft-boiled American private eye or a world-weary member of the Sûreté who knows diddly about wine.

Colin Harpur, whom James describes as a fair-haired version of Rocky Marciano, is only marginally more virtuous than his boss. Married (until his wife is murdered in the darkest and least comic novel in the series, "Roses, Roses," 1993) and a father of two girls, he's a predatory adulterer. When selecting a partner for a dangerous assignment in the series debut, "You'd Better Believe It" (1985), Harpur muses, "Avery was a promising cop, and Mrs Avery had promise too. These team things could push you into contact with a man's wife and family."

Amid the convoluted ethics of the Harpur and Iles novels, where cops turn into lecherous, temporizing vigilantes, and drug barons are rewarded with police forbearance for merely going about their business as decorously as possible, a strong temptation rises for the reader to extract an overarching message from them: Since all the criminality and most of the collateral damage of the drug trade stem from the illegality of drugs, drugs ought to be legalized. Certainly there's a convincing argument--partly social-worker-practical, partly libertarian-theoretical--to be made on that side of the issue. But James's reason for underpinning the series with this implication is that it's simply within Iles's character to know that drugs will always be with us, to realize that busting drug users and street dealers of heroin and crack won't stamp out anything but underpopulated prisons. To Iles, gangster gun battles on city streets are his Adam's apple escaped and gone Godzilla.

To a great degree, James is a literary formalist. To him, character and story are just as much an excuse to craft language as language is a means to craft story and character. Here, for instance is the opening to "The Detective Is Dead" (1995):

"When someone as grand and profitable as Oliphant Kenward Knapp was suddenly taken out of the business scene, you had to expect a bloody big rush to grab his domain, bloody big meaning not just bloody big, but big and very bloody. Harpur was looking at what had probably been a couple of really inspired enthusiasts in the takeover rush. Both were on their backs. Both, admittedly, showed only minor blood loss, narrowly confined to the heart area. Both were eyes wide, mouth wide, and for ever gone from the stampede."

Most of James's considerable stylistic virtues are on display in that paragraph: the villain's Rumpole-ish name, the fast rhythmic riff on "big" and "bloody," the euphemistic sales-brochure language describing violent criminals ("a couple of really inspired enthusiasts in the takeover rush"), the decorously sideways description of gore ("only minor blood loss, narrowly confined to the heart area"), and the Anglican vicar's eulogy for the deceased ("for ever gone from the stampede"). When Iles remarks to Ember at The Monty that Ralph's suit is "of such fabled cut one can't make out if there's a shooter on your tit," you want to read it out loud to yourself a couple of times just to hear the syllables click and relish the incongruousness of "fabled," "shooter" and "tit" corralled in the same short sentence.

If the series has a weakness, it's plot. Not that James's Harpur and Iles tales aren't fast-paced, labyrinthine and propelled by crucial characters' always turning out to know just a little more than we think they do about what the other characters are up to. Au contraire, they're all that in spades, practically every one. But sometimes the yarns are a little too convoluted, a little too devoted to springing surprises along the way. "Wolves of Memory" concerns--in a detour from the drug trade--the aftermath of a lethally failed armed robbery. Harpur and Iles try to get their informant and his family to a safe haven. Harpur has eyes for the attractive wife and, therefore, reason to let the ratted-on crooks find the husband. The wife knows this. She secretly goes to the criminal father of a jailed robber to plead that her husband only accidentally tipped the police. Her mission is no secret to some of the players. She knows it's no secret. And so on.

James is also excessively given to endings that are either what in journalism they call kicker quotes (the final words are a character's, not James's), or off-handedly abrupt, like that sudden silence at the end of Remy Zero's song, "Prophecy." "Top Banana" (1996) concludes with Mansel Shale pondering the money that his whacked rival, Alfie Ivis, might still have on him: "Shale could never even think about going through a dead man's garments personally. It would be so disrespectful. He would hate it."

And for all the action, blood and wit, nothing much--we well know--will change. In the next novel, new criminals will replace those dispatched in the one we're reading, and Iles will find new extra-legal ways to inflict pain upon them. A bit of guilt sets in: Reading this stuff is a kind of narcotic habit of its own. A snippet of repartée between Harpur and Iles about an adolescent hooker slyly alludes to it:

Iles said: 'Col, there's a girl I know quite well called Honorée.'
'I think I've met her, sir.'
'Certainly. She's a girl who stays in the mind. Ebullient.'
'I'd say so, sir.'
'This would be the type of girl you'd go for,' Harpur replied.
'There's an ease of communication between us.'
'This is understandable, sir.'
("Naked at the Window," 2002)

There's also an ease of communication between Desmond Iles and--via Bill James's ironically supercilious dialogue and concentrated, transatlantic-cable prose--us. Or at least there is for those who have acquired a taste for Iles's utterly shameless, very often wicked, and almost-always-entertaining expediency. Thereby hangs a moral question. If Iles (who's at least 50 percent evil) goes down so smoothly, could we be just a wee bit bad ourselves? Of course we are, but James's jaundiced eye and coolly acerbic way with words render his constant reminder ever so delicious.

April 25, 2010 7:35 AM | | Comments (0)

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