James Tucker / Bill James 1929-2023
My friend and fellow writer, James Tucker, who wrote under the names of, among others, Bill James and David Craig, died peacefully in hospital on 17th June. Jim, in his early days a newspaper journalist, was a compulsive writer whose output – the extent of which I would look at in wonder – made my own ventures at the crime fiction workface seem paltry in comparison. 18 novels under the penname of David Craig and, as Bill James, a total of 35 novels in the Harpur and Isles series, beginning with ‘You’d Better Believe It’ in 1986 and finishing with ‘Hitmen I Have Known’ in 2019. I say ‘finishing’, but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that there is one or more as yet unpublished manuscript languishing in a desk drawer.
It’s the Harpur and Isles books for which Jim will, I think, be best remembered. Set in an unnamed dockside town, and revolving around the relationship and rivalry, professional and personal, between Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Isles, and his subordinate, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur, the novels paint a picture of a police force steeped in venality and corruption, where the gulf between the police and the criminal underworld in which they are forced to operate is close to non-existent.
In addition to being studies in corruption and, at times, brutally funny, the novels, just as crucially, are intimate character studies involving Harpur’s wife, Megan, their daughters Hazel and Jill, and Isles’ wife, Sarah. In amongst the stew of lies that are so often called upon to represent the truth, the two girls operate as a kind of Greek chorus, giving voice to a basic, almost old-fashioned honesty, honed in an atmosphere that has forced them to become wise and knowing before their time.
As Hazel remarks, speaking of Isles: “People need someone like you now and then. Like a lavatory brush.” Her father comes off only a little less lightly: “He always does what he can, but it’s not always right or good enough.”
Of all the Harpur and Isles books, my personal favourite – and one I return to again and again – is ‘Roses, Roses’ – first published in 1993 and republished in France in 1998 as ‘Retour Apres La Nuit’ – which examines more closely the lives of the characters central to the series and the extent to which personal betrayal and criminal corruption are irrevocably intertwined.
It begins with this sentence:
“When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband she was leaving him for another man,”
A single sentence which drives the narrative up to the final, shocking two lines of dialogue with which the book closes. And before we move on, let’s think about that sentence again, the weight, the thump, the heaviness of “three chest knife blows”, there to convey something of the force, the ugliness of the attack, as opposed to the ordinariness of the remainder.
Megan, whose marriage to Colin Harpur, might perhaps be described as rocky – one of the more slippery of those rocks being Isles’ wife, Sarah, with whom Harpur has been, and, on occasion, still is having an affair – has retaliated by starting an affair of her own with a former colleague of both Harpur and Isles, nicknamed Tambo, recently and conveniently transferred to the Met. Said affair carried out under the pretence of cultural forays and upmarket shopping trips to London, Harrods and the like, often returning on the last possible train.
It is Tambo for whom Megan is thinking of leaving her husband; Tambo who has – unwittingly? carelessly? – put her in the way of danger.
Having started with that shock of a sentence – the novel is here – the narrative runs along two separate but ultimately colliding lines: one follows Megan’s journey towards home from London, but follows it simultaneously backwards, beginning when she notices a young man who might (or might not) be looking at her from an adjoining carriage, back through her growing suspicion that she might have seen him before. Was he on the platform when Tambo was seeing her off from London? Had she seen him earlier in the day spying on their liaison, a lovers’ tryst in an anonymous ‘grace and favour’ flat with champagne in the fridge and upmarket meals in the freezeer, all thoughts of a matinee performance of that film about the Kennedy assassination abandoned.
Running an uneven parallel, is the discovery of Megan’s body in the otherwise deserted car park and the police investigation that followed.
“Megan was on her side and he crouched down close, noticing the concentration of blood high on her yellow sweater. Her eyes were shut. She lay on a paperback encyclopedia she had bought, so her body was slightly raised at the hips, though her right cheek rested flat on the ground. There were small black stones in her hair. At that stage he did not speak. At that stage he was capable and followed routine and training. He behaved like a policeman and like a compos mentis husband. Taking her left wrist he felt for a pulse and thought, yes, far off, very slow and slowing more, even in the few moments he held her. He tried for a neck pulse, too, but could find nothing there. He hurried back to the Granada, opened the rear door and swept all the junk off the back seat except for an old sweater. Then he picked up Megan and carried her to it, laying her down still on her side, her head supported by the folded sweater. One thing about the Granada – most women could stretch out on the back full-length. He had already known that. All the same, he closed the door gingerly so as not to catch her, then drove.”
“He had already known that” – for all the specificity and seriousness of the paragraph, no way Harpur is going to allowed full-on heroic mode without just the one little dig. Somewhere, maybe, a sense of tit for tat?
At the funeral, secular and organised with ‘suitable’ readings by one Avril Cater from Megan’s fortnightly book group (almost too easy a target for Jim’s humour) Hazel, the oldest daughter, gives powerful vent to her feelings …
“What I’ve got, Avril, or had, is a couple of parents who couldn’t care a monkey’s about all the usual marriage things like loyalty, but who stayed together, slept together – etcetera, presumably – went to cocktail parties and might have had Christmas dinner off Irish linen, all as happy as could be, it seemed. So, any wonder if, as one of their kids, I’m knocked sideways, don’t know for sure what’s what, start wondering what is there that’s solid and real? Maybe it’s religion. So, God’s a myth. A decent myth might be an advance – more substantial than anything round here. For instance, when she went on these London trips did she ever ask one of you lot to go with her, the objectives being allegedly so arty? ‘But you must come, Avril, Maurice, Geraldine. We’ll have such a rave at Titus Andronicus in the park, or JFK.”
Avril said: “I would trust Megan to …”
“Go after what she wanted. Solo. So would I,” Hazel replied. “And I’d trust Dad to do the same. Both ungovernable, unprincipled, unrumbled. Where does that leave me? How do we deal with them at school when they say my mother got what she asked for, shagging around by Inner City?”
There is, of course, no answer. Harpur being deemed too close, Isles takes charge of the investigation into what is a seemingly motiveless killing, though rumours of revenge begin to filter through the labyrinth of underworld informers and grasses; against orders, Harpur does some investigating of his own, as does Hazel, possibly putting her own life in danger.
It ends with Christmas celebrations in the Isles household; Harpur sneaks upstairs for a quickie with Isles’ wife. The body of a young man resembling the description of Megan’s killer has been found, violently put to death. There was port on the table and the goose looked huge and magnificently golden.
John Harvey 2023