Friday, 12 May 2017

Bill James: Harpur & Iles

I’ve just spent most of the reading time of the last six weeks catching up on the adventures of Harpur and Iles and for that matter Ember and Shale, and it was one of those things where I couldn’t really stop and at the same time wondered why I was pressing on. The last time I kept going when so much nothing was happening was when I watched several hours of Big Brother live. When I did that, it was because I’d been conditioned by years of movies and TV to think that if nothing happened for several minutes it was only so that the real surprise would be a big jolt. So the surpassing dullness of Big Brother kept me watching thinking “Any minute now.” Hours later I realised I was watching a new form of TV, and I’ve stayed away from it ever since.

With Harpur & Iles, there should have been a nagging warning in the back of my brain. I used to buy those books as they came out, something which got more and more inconvenient and expensive the longer the series of books ran. At first they were Penguin paperbacks and you could even find them in Greek bookshops, which is where I found the first one. By 2006, they were limited run hardbacks and the only way to find them at all was on the internet. So I just didn’t buy the next one, or the one after that, and so on. At the end of March it occurred to me to wonder what had been happening to Bill James, and I discovered there’d been ten more books, all available on Kindle. Now, what I should have thought was something on the lines of “It’s been a decade, why do you even care?”, and if I’d had to think about ten physical books and the postage, and where I’d keep them after I’d read them … But it was Kindle, and they were cheap, so I just went and bought them all.

And I am not the wiser of it all. Because nothing’s happening. And it’s happening in an incredibly repetitive way. Everyone’s locked in place, for book after book, having the same conversations and doing nothing. And the conversations have a weird sameyness, no matter who’s talking; they’re all speaking in a strange mixture of formalism and ungrammatical slang, as if everyone in the nameless city had the same, completely demented, English teacher. It stops being clever, then it stops being funny, and then it starts getting in the way. Maybe if you’re not reading ten of them one after another.

I’d probably let all of that slide, but there’s one over-arching piece of weirdness which makes the stasis even harder to stay with. The first book in this series was published 32 years ago, and there’s been one every year since then. No-one has aged a day. Harpur still has two teenage daughters, just as he did when we met him first. He’s still a Detective Chief Superintendent. The world hasn’t stood still; Harpur in the recent books lives in a world with smart phones. It’s just that he, and his city, live in a bubble where no-one ages or learns anything. In the early going of the series, there was a fair bit of turnover, particularly among the criminal masterminds, but twenty years ago in my real world Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale rose to the top of their gangs and they’ve mooched along in uneasy partnership every since. 

And there are so many ways in which nothing happens. Nothing major changes; everyone is the same age and has the same worries and grievances. No-one’s position changes; any time anything appears which might threaten the status quo, it fizzles out. And even where the fizzling involves death and violence, the violence happens off-stage. We never see the action. We see the characters talk about what might happen, or think about what might happen, and then the story jumps a little into the non-future and the characters talk inconclusively about the aftermath of the action. And even the conversations go nowhere; Harpur and Iles are forever having conversations which loop around with neither one of them answering the other’s questions. I think it’s supposed to be wry, but it gets tiresome if you read as much of it in one big run as I did.

I’ve often said that I read detective stories not because of the story, but because I like the company of the characters. In a way Bill James has found a way to stretch that idea past my personal breaking point; there’s nothing but the characters. But if they’re just spinning their wheels for decades at a time … 

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