Friday, 29 April 2016

Oliver Harris: The first two Nick Belsey books

Nick Belsey’s not a nice guy. He’s not even someone I think I’d want to have a drink with, but he’s somehow compelling as a character. Like many interesting people, he’s best experienced with a bit of distance. A lot of distance, if possible. I read once long ago that adventure was just horrible things happening far away to people you don’t know well enough to really care about, and Nick Belsey’s a perfect adventurer.

What makes them worth reading is a wonderful queasiness; in both The Hollow Man and Deep Shelter, Belsey’s a man well out of his depth, just smart enough to know he’s wrestling with things he doesn’t understand. In The Hollow Man, he’s trying to figure out what happened to a Russian oligarch, and in Deep Shelter he’s trying to figure out why some nutbar is obsessed with the network of underground bunkers under London. But unlike most cops in fiction, he’s making the problems worse the longer he pokes at them. No, that’s not fair. He starts out by pretty much causing the problem, and then he struggles to solve it without anyone figuring out how much of it is his fault.

So in The Hollow Man, Belsey’s life has fallen apart so badly that when a Russian oligarch is reported missing, it starts to seem like a good idea to camp out in his mansion, and then steal his identity, and then … well, it just keeps getting worse. Grippingly. It falls apart a bit in the end game, not because the plot’s stupid, but because the climax is kind of stupid and doesn’t really add much to the real resolution of the plot. Harris actually wraps the plot up very cleverly, with just about every red herring accounted for in a perfectly reasonable way; given that most of the people driving the plot are not that smart, the dumb things which are happening make perfect sense as stuff dumb people do. And when the dust has cleared, Belsey has just about held on to his job without really solving any of the problems he started the book with.

Though it sets him up nicely for the next book, where he’s still coming in to work, just about, but all the baggage from the first book is hanging over him. Belsey’s on restricted duties now, smartest cop in the station or not. Which is just enough leeway for him to chase a suspect into a bunker. Nothing like enough leeway for anything he does next, which starts with breaking into the bunker without a warrant, deciding to loot it, deciding it would be fun to take a one night stand there, and then getting her snatched by ...

Well, that’s what it’s all about. Who snatched the girl, and how can Belsey get her back without anyone figuring out it’s all his fault that she got snatched in the first place. And for all that it’s a preposterous cold war secret state plot full of spies and nutters, it’s queasily plausible at every step of the way. Belsey has no idea of what he’s got into or how he’s going to get out of it, but he’s not too troubled by scruples. He’s scrambling from moment to moment, just trying to survive the latest catastrophe without having the time to plan for the one after that, and as his options narrow, he has to accept that all he can do is choose what really matters. He makes the right choices, more or less, and it doesn’t feel false to the character; Belsey’s a mess, but he’s a guy who knows the difference between right and wrong.

Just like the first book, the climax is a mess, but the resolution of the plot is solid and true to the characters; it’s as if Harris goes into every book with a fireworks budget and has to spend it before he can go home. And Belsey doesn’t quite save the day, or quite get fired, so I’m sort of looking forward to seeing if he’s still got a job in the next book.

I’m kind of surprised that no-one’s tried to make it all into a TV show. It would make a great modern TV cop show now that we’ve got used to the notion of smart audiences and complicated anti-heroes.

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