UPDATE: The link above no long seems to work, so I've decided to post the original piece I wrote for Windmill Books below, along with the choice of the five best Resnick novels which I did at the same time, and whose link (in the post that follows this one) does appear to be working still....
THE DOWNBEAT BEAUTY OF JOHN HARVEY'S CHARLIE RESNICK
Darkness, Darkness is the twelfth, and last, of John Harvey's Charlie Resnick novels (though, in fairness, we thought the tenth, Last Rites, brought the series to an end back in 1998!). It is elegaic, but it's also fresh; as the discovery of a corpse takes the aging Resnick back to the miner's strike of 1984, a defining time for a Britain in transition, and especially so for Resnick's Nottingham. It is the genius of John Harvey that he is able to make the reader feel the turmoil of the time by focusing on the people around the crime, making the giant tragedy and the smaller one work hand-in-hand to create a powerful look back.
Harvey broke new, hard-boiled, ground with the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, in 1989. Nine more followed, like clockwork, one each year. Their influence was immense. Resnick was the spark behind Ian Rankin's Rebus, Mark Billingham's Thorne, Graham Hurley's Faraday and Winter, and many more of our now best-loved detectives. He reclaimed Britain's mean streets for the sorts of people who walked them, and the sorts of criminals who preyed there. And it didn't hurt that, in Tom Wilkinson, the BBC found the perfect Resnick for the hugely successful adaptations of Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, for which Harvey did the screenplays.
There has never been a detective less superhuman, nor more human, than Charlie Resnick. Wilkinson understood instinctively that Resnick was defined by an essential loneliness. In many ways he was the antidote to Inspector Morse, trading the lofty spires of an idealised Oxford for Nottingham's damp grey streets. Morse had his opera, Resnick played classic jazz. Morse did cryptic crosswords, Resnick constructed monkey-puzzle sandwiches. Morse read poetry, Resnick enjoyed the shaky free verse of Notts County football club. Resnick showed the influence of American hard-boiled classics, of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, but more crucially he was a direct descendant of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Swedish detective Martin Beck. Like Beck he is a loner forced to work in a team context. Like Sjowall and Wahloo, Harvey uses Resnick's stories to reflect on changes in society, and contradictions between appearance and reality (interestingly the Beck series was consciously planned to run for ten novels, just as Resnick originally seemed to be). Beck is an obsessive who finds his quest for solutions, for truth often at odds with the reality of his job. And with the reality of his life.
And this is where Harvey excels, because I can think of no novelist who's been better at using the story of the crimes being investigated to reflect on the personal situations of the people doing the investigating. The human dimensions of his stories remain unchanged, regardless of the setting, and there's a persistent quality which Michael Connelly once described as 'wistful' about them. They contain a mirroring of the human condition expressed through violence, and more tellingly through emotional pain, inflicted, suffered, repressed, endured. Few writers have used the framework of the crime novel more poetically.
It was through poetry that I first encountered John Harvey, more than 30 years ago when he published some of my poems in his excellent magazine, Slow Dancer. It took me a while to connect him with the author of a couple of fine stand-alone crime novels, Frame (1979) and Blind (1981), but by the time I began reviewing Resnick novels, I'd discovered John had also been one of the last of the great pulp novelists—churning out paperback originals at a peak rate of one per month. It was an apprenticeship that makes Darkness, Darkness his 102nd novel, more or less, counting those written by Thom Ryder, Terry Lennox, Jon Barton, James Mann and a handful of other pseudonyms. He wrote everything from biker adventures to teenaged stories of The Tempest Twins; from the novelisation of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo to ten westerns inspired by Sergio Leone about a gunfighter called Hart the Regulator. I confess proudly that I assembled a complete set of them. And before writing this, I searched out a copy of Amphetamines And Pearls, the first of four Scott Mitchell detective novels, a pulpy precursor of Resnick, with much of the darkness but less of the jazz.
Reading Darkness, Darkness, I was reminded of a night about eight years ago when I bumped into John at the Borderline, where the American singer-songwriter John Stewart was playing on what obviously would be his last UK tour. Stewart's songs provided titles for a couple of John's pulp novels (and for my own blog), and as an encore he performed 'Mother Country', a song about a horse-breeder who's going blind and wants to ride his favourite horse one more time. Walking out, we shared our immense sadness, and the sense that Stewart himself was singing with the same knowledge we shared. And that is the quality John Harvey brings to this final Resnick novel, a finish not of melodramatic incident, but of honest and poignant reflection on the way life is, and the way we live it.
In 2011 John published Good Bait, a non-Resnick novel whose title comes from a classic Tadd Dameron jazz song. My favourite version is John Coltrane's on Blue Train, where the tune tries to escape itself, be free and happy, but can't quite shake its way out of the blues. That's how I see Charlie Resnick, and how I think he sees his life as he's lived it. As John Harvey has written it so well.
THE FIVE BEST RESNICKS
If you're coming to Darkness, Darkness as your first Resnick, I envy you, because you
have the whole series to work through. I'd go beginning to end, without waiting a year at a time for the first ten, then ten years for the next, but if you insist on the highlights, try these five, listed in order of publication:
- Lonely Hearts (1989) The first, and still one of the best. Introduces and establishes his unique character in a novel that the Times called one of the 100 best crime novels of the century. It's the book where Harvey finally relaxed from his feverish pace of writing, and gave his characters and setting more depth, and the result was stunning.
- Wasted Years (1993) In which a series of brutal robberies forces Charlie to face events from ten years before: an incident he'd tried to forget, and a marriage he'd lost.
- Still Water (1997): Perhaps the best illustration of the way Harvey uses the criminal investigation to mirror the lives of his characters. A woman's body found floating in a Nottingham canal reminds Resnick of a similar killing that dragged him from a Milt Jackson concert many years before. And the nature of the sex crimes reflects the relationship problems of some of the detectives involved.
- Last Rites (1998): In its own way more elegiac than Darkness, Darkness, as Resnick deals with two drug gangs involved in a turf war, and pursues an escaped murderer, and tries to protect his sister. It's a novel about the things love forces us to do, and about the loss of such love.
- Darkness, Darkness (2014): Alone after the death of his partner Lynn, Resnick is presented with a thirty-year old murder which took place in the midst of the violent chaos of the miner's strike, forcing him to revisit those times while trying to solve the murder today.And if you have already read Darkness, Darkness, then treat yourself to at least one non-Resnick novel: In A True Light (2001), the story of Sloane, an art forger, which encompasses abstract expressionism, jazz, family relations, and a man finding himself all in one perfectly formed novel.