Crime Fiction from England
Bill James’ You’d Better Believe It is the kind of book I wish I discovered more of… no, not because it introduces me to a new moody sleuth… but more because it’s a damned good read, and because it’s the kind of debut novel that ramps up my anticipation, introducing a main character who shows signs of ‘growing’ into a moody sleuth as the series progresses.
The central character in You’d Better Believe It, Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur, looks to me to be worth following.
You’d Better Believe It (first published in 1985), was Bill James’ debut novel in what became the Harpur & Iles series… another series I’ve been late to discover.
I’d initially intended to review the ninth book, Gospel, for England’s slot on my 2014 Global Reading Challenge list, but though I thoroughly enjoyed it, it left me a little puzzled as to why the series is referred to as ‘Harpur & Iles series’.
I thought maybe beginning at the beginning would clarify that, despite my previously expressed misgivings about series debut novels.
Anyway, here’s the setup for You’d Better Believe It, as per the cover blurb:
Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur’s domain is a small (un-named) seaport city south of London. It’s not unusual for the big-town criminals to consider such a spot as easy prey. At such times a policeman must rely keenly upon his colleagues, to be sure, and also upon his retinue of narks (tipsters). This time it’s a Lloyd’s Bank branch that’s the target. When the heist is postponed, a policeman is killed. One nark, then another, is murdered. As Harpur becomes driven to his limit, he must bypass regulations and settle things once and for all with a vicious crook named Holly. But not necessarily on his own terms…
Since the blurb’s let drop a few spoilers, I’ll not reveal any more, only add that although we know who the bad guys are from the get-go, the plotting is so superbly devious that I didn’t see what was coming from one page to the next, nor did the ending disappoint.
But You’d Better Believe It isn’t just a first rate page-turner; Bill James’ writing is an absolute treat; he’s not been referred to as ‘Britain’s Elmore Leonard’ for naught.
As Rebecca Rood points out in her Books to the Ceiling Blog:
The dialogue in these novels is brilliantly written, but I should warn the novice reader: you’ll be constantly thinking you missed something. Speakers are frequently at cross purposes; someone will ask a pointed question and be answered with a complete non sequitur. Then, several lines – or even pages! – later, the question will be answered, or answered in a manner of speaking, totally out of the context of the current conversation. It’s actually a bit dizzying!
Not to worry. There’s not too much of this ‘cross-talk’ in the first book; the dialogue moves things along briskly and is a pleasure to read. I anticipate being eased into the ‘dizzying’ aspects as the Harpur & Iles series progresses.
There’s not too much of Iles in this book either. I’d made assumptions re the series name, expected a pairing like Dalziel & Pascoe or Holmes & Watson, but in Bill James’ You’d Better Believe It, protagonist Harpur tends to lump his superiors, Chief Constable Barton and Acting Deputy Iles together; there’s even a suggestion that he might consider Iles something of a ‘toady’.
Grey, sly, long-faced, Barton was going out of the job in eighteen months and had taken to ostentatious and phoney politeness lately, ready for seeking something in business. He had hoped to coast this last stretch of his service, breathing in only stately valedictions and the kindly fumes of all-night special piss-ups. Lloyds on his plate at this time was unfair, a big and pestilential lumber …
‘You’re going entirely on nark intelligence, yes?’ Iles asked. He was grey, too, though only just into his forties, bony-faced, soft-voiced, small-mouthed, beautifully shaved. He had come from another force three months before and Harpur knew little about him; a mistake. On the face of it he seemed straightish, politic and easy to dislike.
I’m thinking it will be interesting to see how the relationship between Harpur & Iles shapes up, particularly since some reviews suggest that these two go about police business with an amorality that rivals that of the thugs and underworld gangs they oppose.
Iles has, in more than one review, been described as ‘Machiavellian’, and it becomes apparent, even in this first book, that Harpur frets only a little as he turns a blind eye to a prized informant’s high-level involvement in illegal rackets, and makes no bones about ‘tom-catting’ amongst his co-worker’s wives.
Certainly not your traditional detective duo.
You’d Better Believe It is a pretty fast read; James isn’t one to dawdle about explaining things, he just ‘drops us in’ and trusts we’ll catch on as we go… which is fine by me.
Before ‘buying in’ to a series, I tend to check out titles at my local library or second-hand bookstores, but I couldn’t locate any of the earlier titles from this series through my usual sources. I did, however, find that Amazon.com has most, if not all of The Harpur & Iles series, and since they provide sample chapters… three, I think, in the case of You’d Better Believe It… I was able to read enough to know I’d enjoy the book before I bought it.
Even if you buy your books elsewhere, you might want to check out the sample chapters at Amazon.com.