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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

May 02, 2006

Book Review: John Harvey, Ash and Bone

If you're a fan of genre fiction, then like me you may suffer the occasional bout of genre vertigo as you shift between - in my case - SF and thriller, or SF and detective fiction.

I'd been on a several-months-long SF jag before I picked up John Harvey's 2005 novel Ash and Bone (his new hardback, Darkness and Light is in the shops as we speak). I tried taking one plain brown Garrison Keillor in between to clear my palate, but I still found it hard to shift gears between aliens and retired coppers. But part of the vertigo effect is because it's not clear whether you're reading a police procedural or a thriller, a private eye type thing, or something in between.

Those of us familiar with Mr Harvey's work will have been gratified to see his books - with stickers! - prominently displayed, not only in Waterspouts and W H Smith but in Tesco and Waitrose. (What else do you need to know? Waitrose is the kind of supermarket that only sells cod and haddock that have been caught with a rod and line rather than a net.)

John Harvey has previously written a long series of police procedurals featuring Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick, starting with Lonely Hearts and finishing with Last Rights. After filling his shelves with Resnick he has, like Michael Connelly with Bosch, seen fit to move on, and has now written three books featuring ex-policeman Frank Elder, late of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and the Met. This new series is in fact a step back from classic police procedural, and it's more like your classic thriller/detective yarn. Elder is the kind of detective who pokes his nose in until someone over reacts, but as a retired officer isn't exactly involved in day to day police work.

Elder is retired, living down in Cornwall on his own, and trying to pick up the pieces of his damaged relationship with daugher Katherine (see Flesh and Blood for how that happened).

Meanwhile, in London, Elder's former colleague Maddy Birch is involved in the fatal shooting of a career criminal. Before the official investigation into the incident is properly underway, events take a turn that cause Elder to take an interest.

I'll avoid any further plot summary, but this is a nice meaty story set against an ongoing family drama. Key to Harvey's work is the sense of place, whether the streets of Nottingham (familiar to some of us at least) or the tube lines and bus routes of North London (familiar to many more). The easiest way of describing the style is to say it's an American-type thriller with a contemporary British setting, a long way from genteel country houses and *cough*tourist trap Oxford pubs*cough*. The language is salty, and the villains are very recognisable: the kind of seedy crooks and cheeky and o-so-nasty builder types we've all encountered.

In fact, one of them tried to smash down Simon's front door last night, didn't he?

Resnick fans will be interested to note that Charlie makes an appearance in this one.


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