Naked at the Window
A Harpur & Iles Mystery
By Bill James
W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95
BILL JAMES is the most unconventional detective novelist now writing. In fact, it's almost a misnomer to file his "Harpur & Iles" series under "detective fiction," for one finds little in them of what typically passes for fictional detection. Rather, in Bill James's world, the reader is made witness to the chronic disproportion between the means necessary to fight crime (especially the use of informants or "grasses") and the willingness of the courts and the public to tolerate such means. In the shorthand of Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles--ruthless, arrogant, brilliant, amoral, and vain; and his "whole glorious soul devoted to the destruction of crookedness"--"the detective is dead."
The Harpur and Iles series began in 1985 with "You'd Better Believe It" and now numbers nineteen novels--few of which bear much resemblance to the conventional detective novel or police procedural. Killings, to be sure, take place in every Harpur and Iles novel. But they do not always occur at the beginning, nor are they always solved by the end. Four of the books conclude with the killing of a villain--and the reader is left with identifying the leading suspects (on both sides of the law). Only in the series' fourth novel, "Protection," is one led to believe that detection of a sort will lead to murder convictions. And that exception is brought about by the planting of incriminating material: detection as the art of manufacturing evidence to prove what one already knows. Iles congratulates Colin Harpur for his ingenuity in "Protection" thus:
I ought to apologize, Col. That business about your not being first division. The rings [you planted]--magnificent. That's long-term planning, the mark of the highest management potential. Prescience is it called? Admirable. When I do my textbook on policing methods, the key chapter will be: Think jury, think jury, think blind and bent British juries and make sure you bring them something no fat QC [Queen's Counsel] can jinx. If I may, I'll cite the rings, Col.
All 19 novels display James's considerable literary virtues, not the least of which is his mastery of the art of understatement. Take Detective Chief Superintendent Harpur--clever, resourceful, persistent, and a study in studied ambiguity ("ultimately was a location Harpur always tried to skirt"). In "In Good Hands" Harpur makes a valiant effort to adhere to the maxim that one should not speak ill of the dead: "Not a kindly man, but he once told me he would only strike a pregnant woman more than three months on, when it's safer, and I accepted that."
Or consider the point of view of Doug Webb, the villain from "Gospel." Webb is such a good family man that he has two; after one son is killed in a post-office raid, the boy's brother and mother--Webb's favorite wife--seek solace by turning wholeheartedly to church and vicar: "So, religion was doing filthy damage to one of his families--probably the one he thought most of--which was not what religion should be about at all, clearly."
JAMES TREATS his characteristic themes--the tension between the just and the legal, the critique of moralism, and the vagaries of identity--in a manner certain to disappoint partisans of all stripes. Yet James has nothing in common with the many writers whose calculated inoffensiveness is the only thing that recommends them. His sympathy for imaginative policing is unlikely to win him many friends in the ACLU, and his "assumption that love and sex will go their own way and that we had better recognize it" will not endear him to friends of traditional morality. Yet James's novels are the product of an astringent lack of sentimentality that sees the attempt to buck necessity as foolhardy--an invitation to pain, if not disaster.
If one wills the end of policing, for example, one must make allowances for the fact that "you can't be on the side of good effectively without a tidy armoury of dirty tricks." Similarly, one is well advised to learn early that a healthy, if not necessarily happy, marriage is one born of moderate expectations. (A variant on this point is memorably captured in the "Brade and Jenkins" detective series written by James under the pen name of "David Craig": "Mair used to tell Jenkins that she and her husband had believed in complete openness with each other. Divorce must have been inevitable.") James altogether lacks the taste and impulse of a reformer--he has no "agenda" other than to describe things as he sees them--and is a better novelist for it.