Charlie Resnick, Back on the Case
Monday, September 15, 2008
COLD IN HAND
By John Harvey
Harcourt. 376 pp. $26
Between 1989 and 1998, John Harvey published 10 novels about Nottingham Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick. The Resnick series earned acclaim from critics and other novelists and won every prize available to an English crime writer. Harvey put aside the series and began one about another police officer. By then, the Resnick books were widely viewed as the best police procedurals ever written in England. Their annual appearances were sorely missed, and Harvey must have felt both internal and external pressures to bring back gruff, rumpled, much beloved Charlie Resnick. Now he's done so with "Cold in Hand."
Harvey dearly loves American jazz and blues, and "cold in hand" is a phrase that appears in blues songs by Bessie Smith, Joe Turner and others. It refers to a state of extreme desolation, which makes it an apt title for this exceedingly dark novel. As the story opens, 50-something Resnick has achieved personal happiness, but it will be cruelly torn from him. The cases he investigates are unusually ugly -- the murders of a prostitute, a teenage girl and a mother and child -- and they reflect an England that is deeply troubled by racial conflict, criminals from abroad and rising crime rates. Resnick, as he soldiers on, reflects on the demons that the bluesman Robert Johnson once saw in Mississippi, but he could as easily have recalled T.S. Eliot's "Waste Land." This England is terminally cold in hand.
Resnick, whose wife left him in an earlier novel, has been living for three years with the lovely DI Lynn Kellogg, who is a good deal younger. Harvey offers a touching portrait of Resnick as a grizzled old dog who to his amazement finds himself in love. At the start of the novel, Kellogg intervenes in a fight between two teenage gangs. In the scuffle that follows, she is shot and wounded, and a girl is killed. The dead girl's father, a West Indian, blames Kellogg for his daughter's death and makes threats against her. She is also involved in the case of an Albanian gangster who is accused of killing a prostitute at a brothel he operates. Kellogg persuades another prostitute to be a witness, but it's uncertain whether she can keep the woman alive long enough to testify.
The Nottingham police force is overwhelmingly white, and the conflict between it and the growing population of black immigrants is all too bitter and real. And there are other problems. One detective tells a black police inspector that Turkish Kurds are responsible for 90 percent of the heroin brought into England, and continues: "Crack cocaine . . . it's your brothers from Jamaica. Extortion, people smuggling, gambling, mostly down to the Chinese. Hong Kong Chinese. And prostitution, trafficking in girls, it's the bloody Albanians. There. That's your multicultural [expletive] society."
Harvey's novels are deeply rooted in reality, not just the reality of crime but of how people live and what his characters see and hear when they walk down a street. His women are particularly well drawn: a doomed prostitute, a strong-willed black detective, Lynn Kellogg herself. He tells his story in clean, understated prose: Elmore Leonard has likened Harvey's style to Graham Greene's. You're reading along, and suddenly you come upon a phrase like "Her voice was faint, like something passing on the wind" (when Kellogg is in the hospital); or (at a murder scene) "dark lines of blood like ribbons through her hair." American jazz is a major element in all the Resnick books. You don't have to know Chet Baker, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk, among others, to enjoy the books, but it helps, as Charlie seeks pleasure and solace in their music. Harvey tries to achieve in his writing the elegance that he hears in great jazz artists.
The police procedural is a genre that, like the sonnet or the haiku, follows certain rules. You have the cop, the crime and the pursuit. You can be pretty sure that the cop will be skillful enough to ask the questions that will unveil the guilty party, that he will have a bit of romance in his off-hours and that he will be a stubbornly honest fellow who has frequent conflicts with inept or corrupt superiors. Ed McBain was one of the 20th-century masters of the form, just as Harvey is today, along with Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin, whose rumpled, stubborn, romantically challenged Harry Bosch and John Rebus were surely influenced by Resnick.
It's a form with limitations: predictability, for one thing. It's hard, within the form's boundaries, to rise to the level of more expansive stories like Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River" or Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know." But the procedural endures because cops-and-robbers tales are as basic to our popular culture as Westerns once were, and Harvey, who turns 70 this year, writes them as well as anyone alive. If you enjoy police procedurals, this sad, powerful novel will surely give you pleasure.