“Lonely Hearts”: Resnick at the Beginning

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A quick check on AbeBooks.com suggests that copies of the Viking Press, 1979, first edition of Lonely Hearts, in fine to very fine condition, signed, can be snapped up for between $350 and $450. Whereas, anyone wishing to read the same novel on kindle, can do so, from today until June 26th, for a mere £1.99, thanks to Amazon’s Start a New Series promotion.

You pays your money, as the saying goes …

One of the questions I used to get asked quite regularly in those far off days when my publishers used to send me out on tour, my American publisher Henry Holt especially, was did I always think Lonely Hearts was going to be the first of a series? The answer being, well, yes and no. Yes, in that most of my formative pulp days had been spent working on series so it was what I was used to. [Even the novelisation of Herbie Rides Again sprouted Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.] And no, in that it had been hard enough to get this one book published, how much harder was it going to be for a bunch of them? Also, I should add on the plus side, the two most obvious [to me] and relevant inspirations for the novel were both television series, the long-running Hill St. Blues and my own relatively short-lived Hard Cases, which was, in most respects, Hill St. relocated to Nottingham and centred around the probation service rather than the police.

Which sort of takes me to a second frequently posed question: who, if anyone, is the character of Resnick based upon? To which the response used to be, he’s a lot like Captain Frank Furillo from Hill St. Blues, but dressed like Peter Falk in Columbo. A more specific model, following the Peter Falk example, would be the wonderfully fallible, hard drinking and sentimental Sgt. Valnikov, as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s film The Black Marble, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name.

Like Furillo, I saw him initially as a kind of middle-management copper, holding together, through a mixture of firmness and inspiration, a fairly disparate group of younger officers. As the series developed, however, Resnick stepped out increasingly front and centre, in part due to the fact that I was increasingly enjoying writing about him, and in part down to the positive response to him from readers.

But here’s a little taste of Charlie as he initially appears at the beginning of chapter two …

Standing under the shower, Resnick massaged shampoo into his hair as vigorously as he dared: eyes closed tight, face tilted upwards, he lowered the temperature of the water until it reached minimum. When he looked into the mirror, his breath came back to him a mixture of German beer and sweet pickled gherkins. He was the usual eight pounds over on the scales. Cats swayed around his bare legs, slid under his feet as he pulled on his dark grey trousers, dark grey socks.

And this is the first impression of him from the social worker, Rachel Chaplin, with whom he becomes involved …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

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Scott Mitchell Returns!

There’s a feature in the Guardian Saturday Review in which authors describe their working day. Mine, over a period of time, has progressed (regressed?) from starting around 6.30/7.00am and finishing, after appropriate breaks, somewhere between 3.30/4.00pm, to starting at 7.00/7.30am and finishing at 12.30/1.00pm. As a general rule, one thing has become clear: the shorter the day the better the work.

But back in those heady days of yore, somewhere between 1976 and ’77 – and in the midst of co-writing the Herne the Hunter Western series – I wrote four crime books featuring Scott Mitchell. As the cover blurb described him – The toughest Private Eye – and the Best.Well, that’s blurbs for you.

And now, after a number of years during which the original Sphere paperbacks could be bought for surprisingly large sums on the internet, the toughest private eye returns. Mysterious Press in the States, having successfully published the Resnick titles there as Ebooks, have recently brought all four of the Scott Mitchell titles – Amphetamines & Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel & Neon Madmen – out as Ebooks, simultaneously publishing them as dual-title paperbacks, two yarns for the price of one.

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Here’s part of the introduction I wrote for the republication of the titles …

American pulp in a clearly English setting, that was the premise. A hero who was a more down-at-heel version of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade; a style that owed a great deal to Chandler and a little, in places, to Mickey Spillane. Forty years earlier, I could have been Peter Cheyney selling his publisher the idea for Lemmy Caution.

‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ – the title borrowed from Bob Dylan – was duly published by Sphere Books in 1976, John Knight’s gloriously pulpy cover design showing a semi-naked stripper reflected in the curved blade of a large and dangerous-looking knife. 144 pages, 50,000 words: £500 advance against royalties: you do the maths.

But, I hear you asking, is it any good?

Well, yes and no. Reading ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ and the other three books again after many years, there were sequences that left me pleasantly surprised and others which set my teeth on edge like chalk being drawn across a blackboard.

Chandler is a dangerous model. So tempting, so difficult to pull off. Once in a while, I managed a simile that works – “The phrases peeled from his lips like dead skin” isn’t too bad, but otherwise they tend to fall flat. What I hope will come across to readers, though, is how much I enjoyed riffing on the familiar tropes of the private eye novel – much as I have done more recently in my Jack Kiley stories – and how much fun it was to pay homage to the books and movies with which I’d grown up and which had been a clear inspiration. An inspiration I would do nothing to disguise: quite the opposite.

As an example, quite early on, there’s this …

What I needed now was a little honest routine. I remember reading in one of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels that he began the day by making coffee in a set and practised way, each morning the same. It also said somewhere that Marlowe liked to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but as far as I can recall it didn’t say how he did that.

What I did was this. I broke two eggs into a small saucepan, added a good-size chunk of butter, poured in a little off the top of a bottle of milk and finally ground in some sea salt and black pepper. Then I just stirred all of this over a medium heat, while I grilled some bacon to go with it.

They say that a sense of achievement is good for a man.

And later, this

I didn’t know whether she was playing at being Mary Astor on purpose, or whether she’d seen ‘The Maltese Falcon’ so many times she said the words unconsciously.

But I had seen it too.

Inter-textuality, isn’t that what they call that kind of thing? Metafiction even?

Much of the success of the book depends on how the reader responds to its hero. In many respects, Scott Mitchell fits the formula: men are always pointing guns at him or sapping him from behind; women either want to slap his face or take him to bed or both. When it comes to handing out the rough stuff, he’s no slouch. Anything but. He is the toughest and the best, after all. But, personally, I find him a little too down on himself and the world in general, too prone to self-pity. On the plus side, he does immediately recognise Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington, as well as knowing the difference between Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt and having a fondness for Bessie Smith.

The scenes in the novel that work best, for me at least, are those in which the attempts to sound and seem American are pulled back, letting the Englishness show through. That only makes sense: it’s what I know, rather than what I only know at second hand. And what I know, of course, London aside, is the city of Nottingham, destined to be the home of the twelve novels featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick.

It had been so long since I last read ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ that I’d forgotten that’s where quite a lot of the book is set. And in the chapter where Mitchell visits the city’s new central police station, there’s a description of urban police work that points the way pretty clearly towards the world Resnick would step into a dozen or so years later.

Men in uniform and out of it moved quietly around the building. Policemen doing their job with as much seeming efficiency as men who are worked too hard and paid too little can muster. From room to room they went, sifting the steadily gathering detritus of the city night: a group of drunken youths with coloured scarves tied to their wrists and plastic-flowered pennants on their coats; the first few of the many prostitutes whose soiled bodies would spend the remainder of their working hours in custody; a couple of lads – not older than fifteen – who had been caught breaking into a tobacconist’s shop and beating up the owner when he discovered them; a sad queen who had announced his desires a little too loudly and obviously in the public lavatories of the city centre; and the car thieves, the junkies, the down-and-outs.

You couldn’t work in the midst of all this without it getting to you. it didn’t matter how clean the building was, how new. The corruption of man was old, old, old.

And down these mean streets … well, you know the rest.

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Crumley’s Last Good Kiss

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The fact that, not before time, an enterprising publisher – Transworld – had opted to reissue James Crumley’s idiosyncratic and marvellous novel, The Last Good Kiss (and that Waterstones have had the nous to install it as their Thriller of the Month) sent me back to a piece I wrote for Peter Messent’s Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel * in 1997. Here are the opening paragraphs …

I know that the first Crumley novel I read was The Last Good Kiss, but can’t remember too clearest when this was, nor the exact circumstances which resulted in my possession of a RandomHouse, hardcover first edition. But here it is, a little soiled now and ragged, behind Stan Zagorowski’s slightly surreal jacket design – a section of Western town, all brash signs and Hopper colours before a backdrop of towering, featureless mountains and, hanging above Mary’s Bar, a pair of full-blooded red lips that seem to have floated off from a Max Ernst canvas in an outsize offer of sexual promise and threat.

I suspect the year was 1978 or 1979.Not long off a brief series of mawkish, London-based, sub-Chandler private eye novels (James Ellroy was right: follow old Ray down those mean streets and sumptuous sub-clauses at your peril!), and embarked upon a sequence of ten paperback Westerns featuring Hart the Regulator, reading The Last Good Kiss affected me in the same way as listening to Philly Joe Jones when I was trying to be a drummer. All the things I hd wanted to do, plus several I hadn’t thought of, and all with such apparent ease. if I hadn’t already signed the contract, my electric typewriter might well have followed the drum kit into the small ads columns of the local newspaper.

I instinctively knew this was the best private eye novel I’d read since Robert B.Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript, some five years before. I think I knew that Crumley’s book had elements over and above the freshness of Parker’s debut, and that these were something to do with the Western setting and something else I had yet to identify. Whatever the case, having read it once, I immediately set to read it again and have enjoyed reading it every few years since. And even if I still don’t understand the poem it works – or the final playing out of the plot – if there’s a more singular and compelling PI novel to have been written in the past, almost, twenty years, I don’t know what it is.

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  • “The Last Good Place: James Crumley, the West and the Detective Novel” in Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel, edited by Peter Messent, Pluto Press, London & Chicago, 1997

Killing Them Softly …

“I’ve a bone to pick with you,” S. said. We hadn’t had time even to settle in our seats, shuck off our coats, never mind order the first glasses of prosecco. “Lynn Kellogg,” she said, “killing her off like that. How could you?”

She was not the first and quite possibly, as long as there’s an appetite for the Resnick books, of which Cold in Hand, in which I perform that unspeakable, inexplicable act, is the eleventh, she will not be the last.

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I hadn’t written a novel featuring Charlie Resnick for ten years; had imagined that number ten in the series, Last Rites, would be, well, Charlie’s goodbye. But then circumstances suggested I might write something in which I explored, to some degree, the experience of grief. Three good friends of mine, people with whom I had socialised and worked, to whom, over a period of years, I had become close, had died: Angus Wells, in tandem with whom I had written numerous pulp westerns – the Hawk and Peacemaker series under the pen name of William S. Brady, The Gringos as J. D. Sandon and The Lawmen as J.B. Dancer – and who had latterly come to live in Nottingham; David Kresh, the American poet, who was one of the American editors of Slow Dancer magazine, and who introduced me to areas of jazz – David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet – I might otherwise have shied away from; and Charles Gregory, whom I first met when he was a visiting lecturer on the American Studies MA course I was following, and with whom I shared many conversations about movies, crime fiction and music – that of John Stewart and Richard Thompson especially – the best of them while sitting up to the bar behind shots of bourbon with water backs. In addition, I had recently read and been strongly affected by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the sudden death of her husband and the near death of her daughter.

Hence, a return to Resnick, the fictional character I knew best and the best through which to channel and explore those feelings, and, in order to do that, poor Lynn had to die.

“How could you?”

Quite deliberately, constructing the story line for the maximum effect. Centre the opening chapter around Lynn, making it clear her importance as a character, and in that chapter place her in mortal danger, a danger from which she escapes. Whew! That’s all right then.

Maintain that centrality, make the case she’s investigating more important than Resnick’s (This is the beginning, perhaps, of easing Resnick into the background, the role of observer which is largely his in the final novel, Darkness, Darkness.) And then, more or less midway through the novel – and out of the blue – actually the dark of night – throw in a sudden warning. Resnick has been sitting around at home, waiting for Lynn to return from London, passing the time sipping whisky, listening to Bob Brookmeyer – four minutes and twenty seconds of ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.

Through the music he heard the sound of a cab approaching along the narrow, poorly made-up road that led towards the house and a smile came to his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lynn leaning forward to pay the driver, exchanging, perhaps, a few words, before getting out and, as the cab drew away again, crossing towards the house. In a moment he would hear the faint clicking of the gate. The cat jumped down from his lap as he rose and moved towards the door.

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath that it was not.

End of Part One. Title Page: Part Two. Which begins with chapter 22, in which I take us off to a new character, another police officer, Karen Shields, waking, slightly hungover, a hundred or more miles away in North London, close by the Essex Road. It isn’t until chapter 23 that we return to that night in Nottingham, moving backwards in time to find Resnick kneeling beside Lynn Kellogg’s body in the front garden of the house they had shared.

All designed to have the maximum effect on the reader. [What did Henry James call it? The architecture of the novel?] So that when someone says, as did S., still affected by it some six or seven years later, “How could you?”, I know.

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LA Crime Books of 2014

The Los Angeles Review of Books critic and commentator Woody Haut saw fit to include Darkness, Darkness in his list of favourite crime novels published in 2014.

Here’s the list, as Haut says, in no particular order :

  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)
  • Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf)
  • The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)
  • Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime)
  • Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster)
  • There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Crown)
  • Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)
  • Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Pegasus)
  • Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool Productions)
  • The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB Classics)
  • Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

And here’s what he has to say about Darkness, Darkness

The world-weary, jazz-loving Nottingham copper Charlie Resnick is back, tracking down a case with origins in the UK’s 1980s miners’ strike. This is one of the always-interesting Harvey’s best, mixing, as it does, the personal and the political. If, as advertised, this really is Resnick’s final appearance, he goes out, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham, in style. Harvey’s Darkness, Darkness, like Nicol’s novel, switches between the present — Thatcher has only recently keeled over at the Ritz — and the past. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, it’s further evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

I should point out that Woody Haut is a good friend – we often pass one another taking our early morning exercise on Hampstead Heath, he’s the one running, I’m walking, and meet for coffee every so often to talk books and movies and bemoan the latest inconsistencies in the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team – but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time one of my 20 or so crime novels has made its way onto one of his lists of favourite books. Might just be something to it, then. Other than cronyism, that is.