Tuesday, 27 December 2011

JOHN HARVEY'S GOOD BAIT

John Harvey's police novels have always been built on the characters of his cops, and there is no one better at revealing those characters through the day-to-day concerns that real people have. In that sense, you might place Harvey firmly in the path forged by, say, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, and Sjowall & Wahloo's Martin Beck books. Harvey is a master at very subtly using the cases his detectives pursue to reflect the conflicts they face in their 'real' live, and this is what is most impressive about Good Bait, which follows two separate investigations.

In London, DCI Karen Shields is lumbered with the corpse of a teenaged Moldovan boy found on Hampstead Heath, and despite a number of leads, finds herself running into walls. Not only from potential witnesses who won't talk, but from higher-ups in the department who want certain aspects of the case left alone. Meanwhile, in Cornwall, DI Trevor Cordon, playing out his string in the sticks, is asked by Maxine Carlin, a long-time problem for social services and the police, to find her daughter Rose, who never showed up for a planned visit with her father. Years before, Cordon had tried to help Rose, now calling herself Letitia, and found himself getting more involved emotionally than was safe for a cop. But when Maxine herself is killed just a few days later, underneath a train in London, Cordon decides he will get involved.

Involvement is the real danger in Harvey's work: his characters find it dangerous, and often withdraw rather than take the risk. Although the two cases will be brought very close together, the real parallel between them is the sense of danger emotional attachment can bring, how committing yourself to a person, for whatever reason, always brings risk. The dead boy was involved with a girl whose parents disapproved; Letitia/Rose has a child, by very dangerous man who believes the boy belongs to him. At the heart of each subplot is also a father's desire to protect or possess his child, and a mother's to protect it. The personal is never far from the criminal in Harvey's writing.

Meanwhile, Shields winds up facing an unexpected relationship on the job, and Cordon (a name full of resonance in this context) finds those old feelings for Rose are indeed real, though just as dangerous and unlikely to be fulfilled as ever, and his efforts on behalf of her and her son show him just what his own withdrawal from life has meant. This is where he is vulnerable, and he has to face and shrug off that vulnerability if he is going to get a 'result'. Meanwhile, since in Harvey's books the bureaucracy of the police is often more threatening (and sometimes more criminal) than the villains, Shields finds herself having to walk a fine line, which her new relationship may make more dangerous. It seems likely this is a potential conflict to which Harvey may turn in the future.

Drawing all these stories together, in a way, is 'Good Bait' the Tadd Dameron tune which has become a jazz standard. Harvey name-checks quite a few versions throughout the book (as well as the Swedish Wallander TV series, Eric Dolphy, and his own early western novels!) to the point it becomes a motif, and we remember that we are the bait for each other, and the hooks we take are often barbed. My favourite version might be John Coltrane's on Blue Train, where it's a tune that tries to escape itself, be free and happy, but can't quite shake its way out of the blues. That's what this quiet and affecting novel, whose layers draw out feelings in a masterful way, is all about. It's a very early entry for the best crime novel of 2012.

Good Bait by John Harvey
William Heineman £12.99 ISBN9780434021628

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

2 comments:

KimHatton said...

I have all of John Harvey's books, The Resnick Series, which are faultless, The Frank Elder Books, The Stand-alone novels and the short stories as well as the poetry. I am a fan so I have been looking forward to this novel for a long period and was delighted when it was released a few weeks early and came in time for a good Christmas read. How dissapointing then that the book is such a dud.

The two plots really don't come together well, the characters fail to engage the reader on any level and the denoument of the mystery laid out on the first page gets resolved in a cursory manner on the last page outside all of the previous action. The book just doesn't work. In his acknowledgements Harvey admits to a far longer period of gestation than usual for this novel and it shows. I plodded through it with gritted teeth willing it to get better - which it didn't. With Resnick left on the edge of retirement and Frank Elder long departed from one can't help wonder if Harvey has another book in him. If so it HAS to be a lot better than this. A tremendous dissapointment from Englands premier crime writer.

jon morgan said...

Kim with all due respect I think you are missing something. Reading crime fiction for a police officer may be a bit of a busman's holiday. Not so when it comes to John Harvey's work. 'Good Bait' reflects many of the concerns of modern policing with all its bureaucracy and constraints as well as its realities. The grit and pathos are still there in the reality and in the characterisation - well rounded, fallible and all too human. In its plot, as ever, the seamier side of life - here, the ever present tensions of the clash of cultures - personal, local, national and international and the effect of humanity and inhumanity on people's lives. For the professional in me it is credible in almost every detail and strikes a chord in every aspect of the story; for the avid reader, it was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.

Jon Morgan