Alf Mayer’s review of Body & Soul appeared online in the June 2018 edition of CrimeMag.
Anyone wishing to read it in the original German, can do so here, otherwise you must contend with my faltering, but, I hope, basically accurate translation …
Here goes …
Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!
On April 19, William Heinemann published John Harvey’s novel Body & Soul, the fourth and last book featuring former police detective Frank Elder. It is a swan song – in several ways. Harvey confirmed on his blog that this would be his last book. “Jump of your own accord,” he said, “before being pushed.”
Harvey will be 80 on December 21st of this year – something to be clearly stated and celebrated. In March, he made public that he is being treated for aggressive prostate cancer, and does not want to hide the fact that he receiving chemotherapy. “It’s important,” he wrote to me, “that you’re not ashamed of that. We need a different way of dealing with illness in our society, that is my clear opinion.”
Before Elder there was his detective Charlie Resnick, whom Harvey followed through twelve novels, one of which, Darkness, Darkness [Unter Tage, 2017], he adapted for the stage in Nottingham – see my CrimeMag interview from 2016.
But having set Elder aside, as he had thought for good, Harvey mentioned that he had a new idea for him which he wanted to develop in order to see what happened. And now that idea has become a farewell that has everything.
A hammer of a book!
Had John Harvey only written this one, we would remember him forever.
Jump before being pushed indeed!
Old and tattered but still full of juice.
Not a gram of fat too much.
Poetic and brutal.
An ending that freezes the blood.
Chords that reverberate for a long time. Like a masterly piece of jazz that will not be forgotten and which one knows on first encountering will always return.
Body & Soul.
John Harvey, like Elmore Leonard, began his career with Westerns. It’s been over 40 years now. He talked about it In his first column on CrimeMag. He was one of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, with, amongst others, a series called Hart the Regulator, ten volumes published by Pan in paperback between 1980 and 1983. “In those days we wrote ‘em fast!” Hard, short, fast stuff. Pulp.
But not only that. Not many crime writers, like him, have published three volumes of poetry. Not many people know and understand as much jazz and can write about it. [Recently here at CrimeMag: “Looking at Lester”] And not all of them have such slender-beautiful language. Pulp. Poetry. And jazz.
Whooosh, the brushes dabbed across the drum skin. Broiing, the deepest string on the double bass. And then the tenor saxophone. All this is Body & Soul. Harvey knows how to pluck strings, when to use which instrument. When and how the resonance chamber of his novel fills with strength-grief-pain-beauty-hardness-heart. Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!
“Oh Frank, it’s just a song.”
Frank Elder is the dark side of Charlie Resnick. His somewhat short-tempered patience tears easily. After a police career in London, a demoralizing divorce and a fierce family tragedy, he has retreated to far-off Cornwall, where he occasionally helps the local police. When his alienated 23-year-old daughter Katherine comes to visit – “No questions, Daddy! Otherwise I’ll be gone,” – he has to control himself so as not to stare at the bandages on her wrists. Even more, not to ask. He goes to a pub with her, maybe there’s music there. What kind? Jazz, probably, he says. But you don’t even like jazz, says the daughter.
Frank Elder is not Charlie Resnick, sitting on a park bench at the end of Darkness, Darkness, pondering on Thelonious Monk and how well he can paint pictures on the piano. Instead, Harvey gives Elder a scene in which he walks away from a bar singer called Vicki, who has taken an interest in him, and who sings, as if just to him, the Billie Holiday version of the book’s title, Body & Soul.
My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul …
I spend my days in longing
I’m wondering why it’s me you’re wronging …
My life a hell you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender
Myself to you body and soul.
A piece about perseverance, about spurned love in defiance. Charlie Resnick would ponder whether the instrumental version by Coleman Hawkings of October 11th, 1939, or the later version by Ben Webster would be better. Elder leaves as Vicki sings the lyrics, goes down to the water, his hands and thoughts numb until Vicki comes and stands beside him. Here is the beautiful passage …
A blues next, then an up-tempo chase through, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and then …
“This is a song I learned from a recording by Billie Holiday that she made way back in nineteen forty and which I first heard when I was eighteen or nineteen and I’ve been plucking up the courage to sing it ever since. So fingers crossed and here goes. ‘Body and Soul.’”
A few bars of sparse piano and the lyric … My days have grown so lonely … Nailing Elder from the first line, a threnody of helplessness, love and despair. Vicki’s voice by the final verse, the final chorus, beaten, defeated, little more than a whisper. Silence. And then the applause. Elder walked out in the night.
Walked towards the harbour, lights on the water.
Oh Frank, Vicki says to him, as she stands beside him and looks for his hand, it’s just a song, it does not have to be true love, at our age. When he puts an arm around her waist, he does not have to look at her to know she is smiling. Shall we go in your car, she says, or mine?
On another occasion, these two life-worn adults talk about how movies, books, and songs tell us about our own broken hearts, how they teach us what we should feel – Ernest fucking Hemingway, as Elder calls him, and all the others who have shaped our ideas of love and pain. And how, in the end, we are alone.
And all the more painfully, we experience through Harvey’s art a young woman being sacrificed again: Frank Elder’s daughter, kidnapped and tortured and raped at sixteen, barely escaping from death, saved by the father, though ultimately that was of little help; now she is twenty three and strangely ambivalent; sometimes seeking help yet dismissing closeness; rugged, leaping, vulnerable. And most importantly: just mute.
“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!”
From Chapter 5, Harvey changes the narrative more often. We no longer follow only the ex-cop Frank Elder, but also his daughter, and then an increasing number of police officers, men and women, as the narrative strands increase, setting the heart racing. At first, the adrenaline rushes are isolated and controlled until, in Harvey’s hands, this tremendously taut book leaps alive like a wild animal. It is a long time since I have felt my heart beating as strongly when reading as here.
Frank’s daughter, Katherine, has been having an affair with a painter twice her age for whom she has been modelling and this has opened up old psychic wounds, throwing her off balance. Frank Elder travels from Cornwall, five and a half hours by train to London, wanting to be closer to Katherine. He visits an exhibition by this painter, Anthony Winter, and recognizes his daughter. Painted on large format canvasses. Exposed. Spread. Tied up. Like a prisoner. In front of one of these pictures his nausea rises as he stares at a thread of blood running from the young woman’s vagina.
“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!” He roars, knocking down the painter. A few days later he is under suspicion of murder, the artist having been killed in his own studio. A father who sees his daughter naked like that in a painting – of course, he gets angry, says Elder at his interrogation. “It was the paintings. His. Winter’s. There on display. ”
Then there are new developments. Surveillance cameras show a female figure near the studio; it could be Elder’s daughter, suspicion weighs heavily upon her. The conflicts are piling up. But just half way through the book, when everything is already violent enough, once again there’s a strong drum roll. Adam Keach, the 30-year-old convicted murderer, kidnapper and rapist who previously assualted Katherine, has escaped in an accident involving his transport between prisons. And immediately he is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on Elder, who put him in prison seven years before, and he wants to grab his daughter again. Finish what he did with her then.
“No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”
So the past returns with lightning and thunder. The emotional mutilations of that time overlap with acute lines of conflict; Kate’s rude relationship with the despotic and now dead painter is but one of the unequal power relations in the book. Harvey, however, does not paint everything black and white, he varies his themes within the orchestration of his novel. There are other readings of unequal and uneven relationships, be it the ex-girlfriend of the murdered painter who has returned from Cyprus, be it Elder’s relationship with his own ex-wife or with former colleagues. In many shades the shadows and wounds of the past push into the present, reflecting the psychological costs of crime and the smaller malignancies that one experiences in everyday life. “How do you cope with this, how can you forget what this girl has experienced?” – “You cannot do it.”
In many variants, it is always about how to deal with life. Father-daughter relationships are questioned, and also how parents and children move away from each other. As the epigraph of the book, from Grahams Greene’s Our Man in Havana, states “The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for and all loss for him “.
Charlie Resnick had jazz for such moments of nothingness and Harvey offers this kind of music to Frank Elder as well, but in this dark universe it is only of limited help. “No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”
You sit with this book and, as you read, marvel at how John Harvey, master and commander of language that moves between the dust-dry of the everyday and poetic oscillation, achieves his means. There are ultra-tough police interrogations and word battles, the agonizing silence between parents and children, the professional talk of police officers surveying their cases; there is the world of galleries, models and the genius of artists; and there is the sophisticated and soulful police novel – manhunt, thriller. There are discreet and hard sounds. There’s a lot of lacuna. Poetry. There are landscapes, city and provincial. There are many inspiring miniatures. Art galleries, art house cinemas, old colleagues, an investigator who is half of a lesbian couple: all of these disciplined and economically set in an exciting style.
Glancing at her again, Hadley was struck by an image, a flicker of memory, one of those films from the sixties she and Rachel luxuriated in once in a while – or had before Hadley’s promotion to detective chief inspector cut their leisure time by half. Glistening black-and-white, 35-millimeter prints at the BFI Southbank or the recently refurbished Regent Street cinema, a cocktail in the bar beforehand, supper afterwards. Rachel, a film buff since her university days. Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Kieslowski and Kaurismaki. And Alice, Hadley thought, was almost a dead ringer for Jean Seberg in “À Bout de Souffle” : the wide eyes, the dark eyebrows and off-blonde elfin-cut hair. Alice wearing black as usual, black jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Glancing now at the GPS, two more turns before drawing up outside the Wilton estate.
… Then the two investigators are with Katherine and the tone of the book changes. As it does quite often. Again and again. Like a breathtaking concert with John Harvey as the conductor, guiding our responses.
The Body & Soul UK hardcover also features the first few chapters of Flesh & Blood, John Harvey’s first Frank Elder novel, which is now back in paperback. One will want to re-read everything immediately after finishing this.
John Harvey: Body & Soul. William Heinemann, London 2018. 304 pages, GBP 14.99.