By John Harvey
Pegasus Crime. 346 pp. $25.95
The English novelist John Harvey’s 19th novel arrives with praise from two of America’s finest crime writers. “Crime fiction at its best,” says George Pelecanos. “A master of the craft” adds Michael Connelly.
It’s true. Harvey’s books are a joy because he excels in every aspect of crime fiction, including adroit plotting, sharp dialogue, subtle characterizations and an underlying, shimmering intelligence that makes it all look easy, which it assuredly is not.
“Good Bait” is an ambitious novel that balances two plots, told in alternating chapters. The two plot lines, of course, inevitably merge. One centers on Karen Shields, a native of Jamaica in her late 30s who has risen to be a senior homicide detective in London. At the outset, she is called to a frozen pond where a body has been found. (“The face looked back up at her from beneath the ice.”) The body proves to be that of a boy of 17 from Moldova, and the search for his killer leads Shields deep into the world of Eastern European gangsters who have come to London to traffic in drugs and women.
The other plot features a less successful detective, 50-ish Trevor Cordon, who deals with petty crime in a seaside town near Penzance. Divorced and lonely, he forges a strange relationship with a young woman who has changed her name from Rose to the more exotic Letitia. When she goes missing, he sets out to find her, and soon both their lives are in peril.
“Good Bait” is essentially a police procedural, and we learn a great deal about English crime, criminals and cops as it unfolds. There’s violence galore and some smart police work to counter it. But the novel’s highlight is its characterizations, and in particular Harvey’s take on his people’s sex lives. The novel isn’t about sex, but, as in life, that always tempting pastime often leads his characters into unexpected surprises and unintended consequences.
Karen is an attractive woman, but her job and perhaps her disposition are not conducive to romance. Early in the book, awakened by a phone call, she’s in bed with a handsome stranger she’d met in a bar. You’re getting old, girl, she tells herself. Then one night, after several drinks, she lets herself be seduced by a woman who is beautiful, sophisticated and married. But she has no regrets: “Strange, Karen thought, but somehow natural.”
As for Cordon, the lonely small-town detective, in a flashback we see him meet the 13-year-old Letitia, who is already, like her mother, a junkie and a prostitute. Fearing he’ll arrest her, she strokes his hand and suggests a deal. Instead, he befriends her and pays her to walk his dog. When she turns 16, she announces, “I’m legal,” and one night, with the key she uses for dog-walking, slips into his house and his bed. He rejects her, which outrages her and leaves him with painfully mixed feelings: “Angry at her presumption: angry at himself for being aroused; knowing somewhere at the back of his mind and in his groin, he’d always regret an opportunity not taken.”
He meets Letitia again when she’s 30. She’s cynical, foul-mouthed and sometimes cruel, but she’s also quick-witted and vibrantly alive; she still fascinates him. She’s married to a Ukrainian gangster and trying to escape him with their young son. The question is whether, even if she can break free of her husband, she and Cordon could possibly make a life together. Letitia is a wonderful character, a more likeable update of the she-devil Mildred in W. Somerset Maugham’s memorable 1915 novel “Of Human Bondage.” Both Karen and Cordon reflect Harvey’s ability to endow his characters with conflicting strength and weakness; in other words, to make them real.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.