I've always been bothered by OPS, or Opening Paragraph Syndrome, where writers craft a few lines of glorious, flowery, descriptive prose, before lapsing into something far flatter, and in some cases, sub-utilitarian, for the rest of the book. John Harvey's Far Cry opens with a two-page scene that is stunningly atmospheric in its tone, but the difference is not that he sustains it for the rest of the book, but that, even though the tone changes in the next chapter, as it must, Harvey's prose remains at that same high standard throughout a long and complicated novel.
There is no one writing crime who is better at the minutiae of day to day living than Harvey, making small details come alive, but more importantly, using the life those details provide to reveal his characters and his story. Far Cry concerns two missing children, nearly fifteen years apart, but daughters of the same woman, Ruth. In Cambridgeshire, DI Will Grayson is concerned that a serial molester, and possibly killer, has been released from prison, and his obsessive pursuit of that suspect threatens his career until the second of Ruth's daughters goes missing, and he and DS Helen Walker are moved to that case. Of course, the cases are connected, and of course the first disappearance is part of the story. Harvey winds the stories together deftly; that the 'solution' to the loss of the first daughter is not a surprise doesn't make it less effective; the second case, as it weaves in and out of Grayson's pursuit of Mitchell Roberts, provides more than enough suspense.
But what rivets the reader is the way Harvey is concerned with issues of parenthood and loss, the different ways we cope with loss, the different impacts it has on our lives. This is part of his fine descriptive eye, with his interest in the quotidien. The effect of crime goes beyond the criminal and victim, it can also be serious for the families, and for the police as well. Harvey is careful to show all his families in an equal light, while pointing out the subtleties of relationships, of class, of expectations, on family life. He's always been good on the pressures of police work on relationships; but here Grayson and his family serve partly as the reminder of how fine the line is between happiness and tragedy. The story moves between East Anglia, Cornwall, and north London, with the human dimensions unchanged regardless of setting. This is what Harvey is a master at doing, perhaps better than any crime writer in Britain, detailing the impact of society on real people, while chronicling crime and punishment within it.
This is, apparently, John Harvey's 100th book. He is something of a national treasure, in an understated English way; though his books are firmly grounded in the English provinces, they are never provincial. But as a jazz fan, I wish only that every time a lover of jazz turns up in Harvey's writings, he weren't always such a lonely guy. This is one of John Harvey's best novels, which means it's one of the best, full stop.
Far Cry by John Harvey,
William Heinemann £14.99 ISBN 9780434016921
NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk