“Got to be more to life than sex and violence, hasn’t there?”
Lonely Hearts, from British author John Harvey, is the first novel in the long-running Charlie Resnick series. With interesting characters, the book is a good beginning, and the emphasis is on a handful of Nottingham based police detectives who work for Resnick. These detectives have an array of personal problems which become glaringly apparent as Resnick’s team try to solve the vicious murder of a young woman.
PC Patel is making routine inquiries regarding another crime in a neighborhood when a vague suspicion sends him into a house where he discovers the body of Shirley Peters, strangled with her own scarf. At first, the murder seems like a nice, tidy “open and sodding shut” case. Shirley’s ex boyfriend is violent and jealous, and he has a history of stalking Shirley. But then a second murder occurs–even more violent than the first, and a forensic match tells Resnick that the two women were murdered by the same man. A little digging uncovers the clue that both women advertised in the ‘lonely hearts’ column of the local paper, and Resnick suspects that the killer selected his victims from these encounters. The second victim even kept a pile of letters from the men she met–43 letters total. Resnick’s case isn’t easy. One of the women met a man a week. So Resnick’s team painstakingly tracks down the many men who answered ads placed by the two victims.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Millington said, adjusting his tie.
“All these blokes out there. Needing to, well, go through this rigmarole.” He stood up, flexing his legs where the muscles had been stiffening. “I never thought anyone took it seriously. Personal columns. Computer dating. What sort of a state do you have to be in to do that?”
Resnick looked at him. “Lonely?”
Years ago, I read James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places. For anyone out there who doesn’t know, Ellroy’s mother was brutally murdered in 1958. The memoir, which has to be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, includes details of many murders, and one of the points Ellroy makes, and one I cannot forget, is that women who have a secret sex life are very vulnerable. Women who date under normal circumstances tell their friends who they are seeing–perhaps the new beau even meets the family or the roommate, but in cases of casual sex, and in the cases of adverts, women expose themselves to danger because they have exited the usual safety nets. This is certainly true in Lonely Hearts. Our two victims meet a man who misrepresents himself, and as result both women die horrible deaths.
Against the backdrop of the murders of these two lonely women, John Harvey creates Resnick, a man who understands loneliness; he’s divorced, middle-aged and lives with four cats for company. While he’s a good detective, he neglects himself, so he often turns up in rumpled clothing, and at one point has a food-stained tie. Resnick’s neglect of himself is becoming so obvious that he’s beginning to generate comments. Even his boss Superintendent Jack Skelton, who jogs every day, tells him: “You ought to get married again, Charlie.” Resnick, deep in middle-age, has neglected his body, and since he eats badly ( he eats heavy meals irregularly), he’s beginning to turn to fat. Resnick is every bit as lonely as the dead women who placed the ads.
Another theme of the novel is abusive relationships, and there’s certainly more than one of those here. Resnick is scheduled to appear and testify in a sickening child abuse case, and it’s a situation in which he finds himself considering how the ‘law’ doesn’t equal ‘justice.’ He meets and becomes attracted to Rachel, a social worker, whose relationship with her live-in boyfriend is going south. Lonely Hearts shows how relationships that go wrong can so easily flip into violent abuse when one partner refuses to accept that it’s over. But even the non-abusive relationships in the novel seem to be examples of people ‘settling’ for another person who’s little more than a warm body–anything except be alone. So on one hand, we see characters who are seeking love, companionship and sex, and on the other hand we have characters who have partners who occupy a space in their lives but little more. Many of the couples seem to be together out of habit and are so plagued with inertia, they lack the energy to leave.
The ending of the novel was too Hollywood/sensationalistic (read unrealistic) for my tastes, and Rachel was a rather annoying character. The best part of the novel for this reader, and it certainly promises more for the series, are the interesting characters surrounding Resnick: there’s Divine, an old school sexist detective who harasses his married partner, Kevin Naylor. Kevin Naylor is distracted by the sudden overwhelming requirements of married life and its endless demands. He feels somewhat disoriented by the sudden new path his life has taken as if he took the wrong escalator and can’t get off. In many ways Naylor, who keeps his problems to himself, envies womanizer Divine:
Why couldn’t he be like Divine? The world divided into three equal parts: you drank it, fly-tackled it, or got your leg over it.
Of course, men like the crass Divine want men like Naylor to envy them. Then there’s Lynn Kellogg, a young “stocky, red-faced” policewoman from Norfolk whose instincts indicate that she’s going to have a stellar career. There’s some unspoken antagonism between Lynn and Divine, and there’s a question about who ripped off Divine’s beloved girlie posters off the wall. Resnick is considering reshuffling partners as the story plays out, and that should make for some intriguing sequels. Lynn, in many ways, is a female Resnick; her energy and her passion centre on her career, and she’s just one of the characters who evaluates a tepid relationship:
She had moved to a housing association flat in the Old Lace Market area of the city, where she lived with a professional cyclist who spent most of his spare time pedaling over the Alps in bottom gear and the remainder shaving his legs to eliminate wind resistance.
This has been made into a TV film with the excellent Tom Wilkinson as Resnick.