Sunday, February 03, 2008

At the Top of His Game

One writer whose work I have enjoyed for more years than I care to mention is John Harvey, so it was with delight that I recently received an invitation from Random House UK to attend the launch of Harvey’s latest novel, Cold in Hand. This occasion was made extra special by the fact that in this new book, Harvey is bringing back his most beloved protagonist, Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, last seen in the novella Trouble in Mind (2007) and before that in Last Rites (1998).

Harvey is a crime writers’ crime writer--“among the greats of British crime fiction,” to quote fellow novelist John Connolly. Or, as Reginald Hill puts it, “If Harvey gets any better, the rest of us may have to kill him.” Beyond being the author of the richly praised Resnick tales, the first of which, Lonely Hearts (1989), was named by the London Times as one of the “100 Best Crime Novels of the Century,” his first novel featuring retired Detective Inspector Frank Elder, Flesh and Blood, won the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Silver Dagger in 2004. Then last year, he picked up the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in this genre. If the accolades from his work in crime fiction are not enough to convince you of his worth, then perhaps his work as a poet, dramatist, and occasional broadcaster should conclude the matter here.

What are readers to expect from Cold in Hand, the 11th Resnick yarn? Random House synopsizes the plot this way:
Valentine’s Day, and a dispute between rival gangs escalates into bloody violence. One teenage girl dead is left dead, another injured, and a police officer is caught in the crossfire. Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, nearing retirement, is hauled back to the front line to help deal with the fallout. But when the dead girl’s father seeks to lay the blame on DI Lynn Kellogg, his colleague and partner, Resnick finds the line between personal and professional dangerously blurred. Meanwhile, a murder case in which Kellogg was the chief investigating officer has stalled. One vital witness is threatened, and another is missing. But when SOCA--the Serious and Organised Crime Agency--start to show a keen interest in the case, believing there are links to international gun running and people trafficking, Lynn Kellogg finds herself drawn into a web of deceit and betrayal that puts both her and Resnick in mortal danger.
A short excerpt from the text gives you a flavor for Harvey’s writing:
A few of those standing at the front turned to see what was happening and she was able to force her way to the centre. Faces, all shades, stared at her, showing everything from indifference to pure hate ... The two young women--girls--who’d been at the heart of the fighting had broken apart when Lynn pushed her way through. Fifteen, she guessed, sixteen at most ... ‘Okay, put the knife down.’ Two steps more, then three. Slow, measured, as assured as she could be. Somewhere in the middle distance, the sound of a police siren coming closer. Overhead, the street lights seemed to be getting brighter with each second. ‘Put it down.’ The girl’s eyes were bright, taunting, only the merest flicker of fear. Of doubt ... Another half step and the expression on the girl’s face changed, her shoulders seeming to relax as she shifted her hold on the knife and lowered it to her side ... Lynn reading too late the widening of her eyes, too slow to counter the movement, lithe, as she sprang past, the blade slashing at the right side of the other girl’s face and opening it like a ripe plum ... Lynn pivoted on her left foot, seizing the attacker by the sleeve and swinging her hard round ... from the corner of her vision, she saw the youth step forward from the retreating crowd, arm raised. Time enough, as she swung towards him, to note the black-and-white bandana wound tight around his head, and the pistol held almost steady in his hand, the contempt in his eyes.
Random House had organized this last week’s soirée not only to celebrate Cold in Hand, but also to acknowledge the American release of Harvey’s last novel, Gone to Ground. It was being held at the Union Club in London’s Soho district. Wrapped up in my signature blue trench coat, garb appropriate to the stormy weather outside as well as the world in which Resnick operates, I arrived at the party with my colleague, Shots editor-in-chief Mike Stotter.

The first person we bumped into was writer, critic, and man-about-town Barry Forshaw (The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction), who had already pronounced his verdict on Harvey’s new novel, calling it “quite possibly Harvey’s most authoritative [book] in years: visceral, engaged and, yes, unputdownable.” From there, I had a chat with writer, critic and bookstore owner Maxim Jakubowski, who--I was amazed to discover--had enjoyed Tom Rob Smith’s coming debut novel, Child 44, just as much as I did. (Read my comments here.) This is the first time in a very long while that Jakubowski and I have shared the same opinion on a book (unlike our differences on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and it was worth a toast. He also let me know that his partner, who is well versed in Russian history, had read Smith’s novel too, and said that the backdrop of Stalinist Russia in Child 44 is remarkably without imperfection or error.

Unfortunately, Jakubowski and Forshaw had to leave these festivities early. After reminding us of the February 7 North London writers’ event, which will feature Rap Sheet contributor Roger “R.N.” Morris (A Vengeful Longing), they set off for a pre-arranged dinner. Stotter and I were left behind to listen to the three-piece jazz band that Random House, knowing Harvey’s taste in music, had brought in to play for guests. Although they were a little loud loud for the size of the venue, their music did give the evening some added flair.

Mingling and munching a bit, we ran into British crime writer Jo Hines (The Murder Bird) and talked about the coming award ceremony in May for U.S. novelist Sue Grafton, who will receive the Cartier Diamond Dagger for her work. We also chatted up Gaby Young, publicity manager for Orion Publishing, who has introduced me to many of Orion’s authors over the years (including Michael Connelly and Robert Crais), and has arranged for me to have lunch with Linwood Barclay (No Time for Goodbye) during his approaching trip to London. And we spent some time with playwright and crime novelist Stella Duffy, as well as stand-up comic-turned-crime writer Mark Billingham, the latter of whom has taken a break from his police-procedural series to produce a standalone entitled In the Dark (due out this summer in both the UK and the States).

Finally, Harvey’s editor, Susan Sandon, took the microphone and welcomed us all to the party. She spoke about Harvey’s breadth of work, and said that despite her love for world-weary Detective Inspector Frank Elder--Harvey’s more recent protagonist--she was pleased to have worked on the return of Charlie Resnick ... even though she thinks Elder is much sexier! This was greeted with a few good-hearted laughs from the assemblage. Sandon also reminded us of Harvey’s recent Cartier Diamond Dagger Award presentation and asked us to raise our glasses to the author, which we of course did.

Harvey followed with a very modest speech telling everyone how pleased he was to see that Sue Grafton would be the next Cartier Diamond Dagger recipient, and how much he enjoyed her work. Then he talked about his own life and his relationship with Random House and how much in debt he was to the sales and marketing teams for getting his work to readers. I must say that the new-style British covers capture the mood of his work perfectly. There has been a huge campaign to promote Harvey’s work in British railway stations, tube stations, bus shelters, and associated locales.

At the conclusion of Harvey’s remarks, Stotter went off to speak with fellow author Rob Ryan (After Midnight) about all things military, including his recent training session with American writer Vince Flynn. I, on the other hand, managed to draw John Harvey away into a quiet corner, where I could conduct a short interview about his work and the unexpected return of Charlie Resnick.

Ali Karim: So, the most obvious question first: Why did you decide to bring back DI Charlie Resnick in your latest work?

John Harvey: I hadn’t written about him at length for 10 years, but had given him walk-on roles in several other novels as well as having written several short stories in which he featured, so his fictional life had been continuing during that gap, which meant it wasn’t too difficult to pick him up at the start of Cold in Hand. I knew what he’d been involved in, both professionally and personally. Also, I’d been living in Nottingham again for two years, more or less, immediately prior to writing, so I felt I had got to know the city again--and had spent enough time there to register some of the changes that had occurred. I was interested in writing about Resnick as he approaches retirement (to no small degree inspired by K.C. Constantine’s wonderful book, Blood Mud) and also in writing in a little more detail about his relationship with his fellow officer and now live-in lover, Lynn Kellogg. Lastly, prompted all too sadly by the premature deaths of several close friends, I wanted to see if I could write well and convincingly about grief.

AK: I was pleased to read that Resnick’s debut in Lonely Hearts had been voted one of the “100 Best Crime Novels of the [20th] Century.” Is that your own favorite Resnick tale, too?

JH: Lonely Hearts is not my favorite, really, other than as a first-born. There are too many places where I can see myself trying to get a grip on Resnick’s character, which is a little uncertain in places, and perhaps the tone is too varied. Oh, and I think the abrupt ending was a mistake. I wouldn’t do that again now.

I have a particular fondness for Cold Light [1994], partly as it features Lynn quite heavily, but also as the story doesn’t run out of steam before the end, which some of the others might seem to do. My personal favorite is Easy Meat [1996]. For me it’s the strongest in terms of its theme and its language--some sections were not easy to write and I guess they’re not easy to read, but it’s perhaps the one book, up to that point, which comes closest to doing what I set out to do. And I do love the last chapter of this one [Cold in Hand]!

AK: To what do you attribute Resnick’s success as a fictional cop?

JH: I’m not sure. Women seem to find him kind of cuddly and want to mother him a little, sew his buttons back on and maybe a little more. Men like his taste in music. Somehow I seem to have given him a humanity which readers respond to, possibly through showing his compassion in his dealings with other people.

AK: Your editor at Random House seems to be more a fan of Frank Elder than Charlie, so what has your relationship been with your editors over the years?

JH: Mostly pretty good. I had an excellent editor in the States, Marian Wood, who was at Henry Holt during the period in which the first 10 Resnick books appeared, and since they were published more or less simultaneously, Marian acted as senior editor on most of those books. She was the one who sent me copious notes and, without a doubt, the books were greatly improved by her editorial input. Now I enjoy a similar situation with Susan Sandon, my UK editor at Random House, who is both an excellent close editor as well as being a strong in house supporter of my work.

Otto Penzler has always championed my writing in the States, and when Holt didn’t pick up my contract after the 10th Rensick, it was Otto who picked up the ball, first with Carroll & Graf and currently with Harcourt.

AK: Can you tell us a little about Trouble in Mind, the short Resnick work you saw published in the Crime Express series? How did you get involved in that project?

JH: Simple. I’d had close dealings with Ross Bradshaw, the publisher of Five Leaves, whose idea the Crime Express books was, so when he approached me with his idea for the series and asked me to contribute one of the first stories, I was delighted to agree. I love writing short stories and am usually happy to be asked. And because this was to be a much longer story than any of the others I’d attempted, it was an interesting challenge. But since the Crime Express books do not have a large print run, and will mostly only be sold in the UK, I’m happy to say that Trouble in Mind will appear in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in the States, possibly later this year.

Five Leaves, incidentally, are publishing my novel for young adults, Nick’s Blues, which was written for my French publisher and published there in translation a couple of years ago. Its central character is a teenage boy who is coping with life on a tough London estate and trying to discover why his father, who has been an acoustic blues musician, killed himself when he, Nick, was still quite young.

AK: What, in practical terms, has your winning the Cartier Diamond Dagger brought you? You’ve already been nominated for and won many commendations over the years.

JH: I think many people see it as a sort of summit of achievement--the award of awards, if you like. And in practical terms, my publisher has been able to use it to advantage in terms of sales and publicity. On this point, I was really pleased that my friend Sue Grafton, who was also one of Marian Wood’s authors at Henry Holt, is to be this year’s winner.

There I am, sandwiched between [recipients] Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton. What a fine position to be in!

AK: Your books are making ripples in the U.S., so is there much tinkering necessary to bring them to an American audience?

JH: Not really. Otto Penzler runs a keen eye and a light hand over them, ironing out some of the Anglicisms he feels might confuse U.S. readers--nothing at all that I would call tinkering.

AK: And what are your plans for your visit as International Guest of Honor at this year’s Bouchercon in Baltimore, Maryland?

JH: Oh,God! Make a speech that isn’t too abstruse, give good interviews, drink some--but hopefully not too much--Scotch (or Irish) in the bar; then hang out with some of the U.S. authors I like and rarely get to see, people like John Straley, Bill Moody, Lise McClendon, George Pelecanos, et cetera. Also, I’m hoping Laura Lippman will live up to her promise and persuade her husband, David Simon, to take Mark Billingham and myself round some of the locations used in Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire.

AK: My father really enjoyed your radio dramatization for Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet” for the BBC, which is one of many you have done over the years. Can you tell us how much work such an endeavor entails?

JH: Thank heavens, the one and only trouble with radio is that you almost never get to hear whether people have listened and enjoyed what you’ve done. Dramatizing the Raj Quartet was a big task and, fortunately, my friend writer Shelley Silas (who happens to be Stella Duffy’s partner) worked with me on the project. It takes a lot of careful reading and re-reading to pick out the major incidents in the story and then put them into some linear order (as the books themselves do not progress in a linear way), and that sort of reading and planning that takes place before the actual writing is the longer part of the process. Then, once the writing has started, you know you will be doing two or three later versions of the scripts, at least before the actors get to see them--at which point more changes will usually need to be made. Indeed, you’re changing lines right up to and during the actual recording. So it’s a lot of work for comparatively little money, compared to writing for TV or film, and you don’t know who or if anyone hears it. But it’s a good challenge, excellent discipline, and when you hear good actors saying your lines everything is worthwhile.

AK: What books have passed across your reading table recently that you’ve enjoyed?

JH: Hmm, last book I read was a proof of Stella Duffy’s The Room of Lost Things, a marvelous novel about south London life--quite the best thing she’s done so far. Before that I read the latest Jonathan Coe, The Rain Before It Falls, which I liked far more than his comic novels, and a ’60s novel by John Wain, Strike the Father Dead, about a young man who casts aside his education to play jazz piano in Paris and the fleshpots of London’s Soho. I’m also reading Time and Materials, the new book of poetry by Robert Hass, he former U.S. poet laureate, who I think is the best poet currently writing, bar none. The only crime novel I’ve read lately to make me really stand up and take notice is James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown--not so much for the crime plot, though that’s fine, but for the impassioned stuff about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans.

AK: And what are you working on currently?

JH: Well, “working on”--other than in my head and on my whiteboard--is a bit of a misnomer. But, hopefully, it will be a novel which has the provisional title of Almost Grown, and will feature Will Grayson and Helen Walker, the two police detectives from Gone to Ground, and will be set in Cambridgeshire and Cornwall and, probably, London.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope it's not too late to say, I'm sorry I missed seeing you in Baltimore, John. Nothing would have been more fun! What a bummer. I hope you got to get your ride-along with David and Laura though!
Lise McClendon