Bill James is the pseudonym for the author of the long-standing Harpur and Iles crime series which began in 1985 with the first novel You’d Better Believe It. Well here’s number 32 in the series: Blaze Away. While the novel worked as a standalone, with footnotes which gave pointers to the novels in which various mentioned incidents took place, it’s clear that the plot is founded on a basic affection for the many long-standing characters and their sometimes nebulous relationships.
The novel starts off very strongly with an art theft gang known as “Cog,” casing out, via a laptop, photos of Darien, the country estate belonging to Jack Lamb. He’s known to house a substantial art collection, and the gang–composed of planner George Dinnick, Liz Rossol, in charge of recon and fieldwork, and art expert Justin Benoit, plan to rob Lamb knowing that since Lamb deals in both stolen goods and fakes, he won’t report the robbery to the police. The hope is that although the art is probably stored in a concrete strong room, that Lamb will roll over without the need for persuasive methods:
Dinnick said: ‘We take and then transfer our trove to that jolly friend in Ghent by customary methods, and it disappears into the great, shadowy, magnificently efficient arty elsewhere. Obviously it would be best if we could get there while the stuff is actually on display, easy to unhook and multi-filch. The strongroom could cause difficulties–delays, and the need to force the door–combinations from him. We all hate that kind of blood and bone-break thing, I believe, but Jack Lamb’s not some innocent, pure at heart, pictures fan, is he? We’ve dealt several times with similar obstructiveness. Lamb has chosen risk as a colleague. That’s us. Risk can move in on him and become not risk at all but authentic, professionally delivered pain. He’s hardly going to call the police, is he, running the kind of business he does?”
While the gang carefully case Jack Lamb’s estate, they note two things: 1) Jack Lamb’s mother is there on holiday from America and 2) Jack has a visitor who drives a car with registration that, when checked, simply doesn’t exist. Conclusion: Jack Lamb has a friend in the force, and that perhaps Jack Lamb is a police informant.
After setting the scene with details about Jack Lamb’s art collection and his relationship with Harpur, the novel shifts to Ralph Ember’s “social club,” The Monty, “at present unquestionably a lovely building but, because of the membership, also unquestionably a scrap-heap, crap-heap.” Ralph has got it into his head that if he can “spruce up the club’s grubby character” with art, then he’ll appeal to a better class of membership. Fat chance of that happening. In spite of the club’s membership rules, which include a booklet which lists “no weaponry,” member Basil Gordon Loam aka Enzyme shot up a protective steel barricade which is covered with pasted on illustrations from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This has resulted in a lifetime ban for Enzyme and a renewed interest from Ralph in pursing an artistic theme in the club.
But even more than that, the shooting incident results in an article in the gossip column of the I Spy tabloid. The incident rattles Liz Rossol and she decides that it needs further investigation in case there will be an impact on their intended robbery of Jack Lamb. At the same time, Assistant Chief Constable Iles also reads the I-Spy article and decides to take proactive measures to ensure that Ralph doesn’t exact revenge against Enzyme.
So basically, the I-Spy article makes all the characters converge.
Stepping into this novel is like stepping into an alternate universe. As a crime novel, the mood and style are unique and quirky. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the leap required to accept that Liz Rossol would imagine that the shooting at The Monty Club was in any way a problem for the planned robbery at Darien, and credibility is stretched to imagine, in today’s world, that an Assistant Chief Constable would stop everything after reading an I-Spy story (even though I know this decision is founded in long-standing relationships). Large parts of this short novel include soliloquies on various topics such as the meaning of one painting and the damage perpetrated on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s also a long section which takes place in a daycare centre. Again the emphasis is on quirky rather than credibility or realism. Since this is a long-standing series with long-standing characters, Bill James has built a world peopled with eccentrics and eccentricities.
After coming across a mention of the Harpur and Iles series in a Ken Bruen novel, I’ve been meaning to read Bill James for some time and own several of the early books. I’ve read chunks from the earlier books and liked what I read, but still, as a newcomer, in all fairness to the author and the series, I was unprepared for the novel’s tone and mood. I liked the novel’s style and the cultural references (which, in a circular way brought me back to Bruen). Some reviewers seemed annoyed by the banter between Harpur and Iles but I rather enjoyed it:
The two main cops around here, Assistant Chief Constable Iles, and Detective Chief Superintendent Harpur, behaved something like Enzyme. One of them would ask the other a question and either get no answer, or an answer that was another question, or even an answer to a different question that hadn’t been asked and had no relationship to the one that had. This was not caused by subconscious obedience to the uppish family past and genes, though, as with Enzyme, but by a playful, vicious determination in both Iles and Harpur to piss on the other’s peace of mind, confidence and sanity. That’s what policing at the highest levels must be like: conversations which were not; which were sessions of attrition and lively insult.