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Shooting the Breeze with JOHN HARVEY

Written by Bob Cartwright


JOHN HARVEY is one of the best known, and best-loved, British crime writers, though he also has a strong following in the US and on the continent. His latest book is Far Cry and Bob Cartwright caught up with John while he was touring the UK to promote the new book. Predictably, the meeting took place in Charlie Resnick’s old stamping ground, Nottingham.

Bob:  I was surprised to read in your biography that you were actually born in London. I suppose, like most people, I have always associated you with Nottingham. Are there any more surprises lurking in your early life? When, for instance, were you bitten by the writing bug?

It’s odd, this. I remember always buying little notebooks when I was a kid, but not writing much in them; and then, when I was at secondary school and at college I set up or edited newspaper, so if I was going to be any kind of a writer, it would have been a journalist, but that never happened. I recall starting to learn shorthand once and just not getting it at all, so maybe that was why it never happened. By then I’d started teaching – that was in the mid-60s – and, a few articles for education magazines, and some seriously bad poetry aside – I didn’t write anything until the mid-70s, when, under Laurence Jame’s tutelage, I wrote the first of two biker books for New English Library.

Bob: I think it’s fair to say you came to prominence in 1989 with the publication of Lonely Hearts, the first in the Resnick series. However, your career as a writer started well before that with some crime fiction, but with a much greater output westerns and a couple of war books. Can you tell us a bit about those early efforts?

As I’ve suggested, the late Laurence James, who had been at Goldsmiths’ College with me in the early 60s, and had gone on to be an editor at New English Library before becoming a writer, was the main influence here. Laurence knew I was looking for a change from teaching and suggested I try my hand at writing; NEL wanted another ‘Mick Norman’ biker book from him, but he’d moved on to other things, so he recommended me in his place and ‘Thom Ryder’ was born – for two books, anyway.

After that, mostly in tandem with either Laurence or another editor-turned-writer, Angus Wells, I wrote some forty or so westerns under a batch of shared pen names, along with some fairly desperate attempts to turn out convincing paperbacks about mercenaries or bands of soldiers. I had more luck with teenage romances!

The thing about that period, which lasted, I suppose, for no more than five or six years, is that, because I was writing roughly 50,000 words a month, I got in an awful lot of practice – and was being paid to do so. And I think the most important thing I learned – though I still couldn’t pin it down in words – was how to get readers to turn the page. Something about pacing and rhythm and narrative expectation.

Bob: How did you come to focus on crime fiction? I imagine you must have made that choice before realizing that the Resnick series were going to be so successful.

Well, I’d tried earlier, with four books about a private eye called Scott Mitchell, which were pretty unsuccessful, and, a few other desultory efforts aside, I didn’t think about writing crime seriously till the late 80s, when I sat down with the writer Dulan Barber [also, like Laurence and Angus, now dead, Dulan wrote crime fiction as David Fletcher and horror as Owen Brookes] to think about the character who became Charlie Resnick. I’d just finished working on TV series called Hard Cases, which was set in Nottingham, where I was then living, and was about the probation service, with a multi-narrative story line very much modeled onHill Street Blues. This, and the fact that I’d been reading and enjoying a lot of Elmore Leonard, made me want to have another crack at crime fiction – hopefully, using the pace of those American models but in a recognisable English setting.

Bob: I’m probably being a tad conservative but of all your crime fiction characters Charlie remains my favourite. I am sure you’ve been asked this hundreds of times, but how did you come up with a detective of Polish origin, based in London with a fondness for modern jazz?

I think you mean Nottingham. I was very aware that there was quite a large Polish population in the city, mostly families who’d come over around the time of WW2, and I liked the idea of Resnick having that background – then, because he would have been brought up in Nottingham, he would know it well yet be, in some respects, an outsider. The deli sandwiches sprang from that and so, less obviously, did the jazz. They were both ways of signaling that he was a little different from the usual home-grown cops, and had a quite rich appetite for music and food. Plus, I’ve always liked to write about jazz whenever I could – even back in the early days, one of my mercenaries, as a kid, had trailed Charlie Parker all round New York, surreptitiously recording every note he played.

Bob: Incidentally, out of the three characters – Resnick, Elder and Grayson – which is your favourite? And which one was the easiest to write for?

Well, Resnick was and is, if only because I’ve written about him so much; with both Frank Elder and Will Grayson, I’ve been able to write about the parent-child thing, which, as an older father, has been something of a preoccupation in the past ten years.

Bob: Again, an old chestnut of a question, how do your plots materialize? Just to give it a bit of new spin to what extent do the different heroes generate different kinds of plots?

It varies, but to hark back to the previous answer, Frank Elder came out of a short story called, I think, “Drive North”, in which Elder and his wife and early teenage daughter move from London to Nottingham, and there was something about that set of relationships which made me want to return to it, and so the fact that those relationships, especially the one between Elder and his daughter, would be central to the books, to a large extent determined the plots. Certainly, that was true of the first, Flesh & Blood. Then, once I’d taken the relationship as far as it interested me by the end ofDarkness & Light, I had no real urge to write about Elder again.

With the new book, Far Cry, the story came first, but as soon as I knew it involved children, I knew I had to use Grayson, as he has two young children himself.

I don’t think I could have written Cold in Hand, without the character of Resnick – someone I felt I knew well over a period of time – being on hand to flesh it out.

Bob: You wrote ten Resnick books, roughly one a year for ten years. That must have been pretty exhausting for you and for Resnick.

Yes, and it would have done both of us good to have taken a break before we did, but you know how it goes, publishers, on the whole, once they’ve embarked on a series, want the product to be there, year In, year out. Thankfully, partly due to the success of the books since Flesh and Blood, and due to having an enlightened and sympathetic editor, Susan Sandon at Random House, I’m no longer trapped in that situation.

Bob: The TV series of Resnick was probably the first to feature a contemporary crime fiction series and was certainly the first one that really grabbed me. I think it was probably also the first one to encourage publishers to see crime fiction not just in terms of books sales but TV rights. Was that apparent to you at the time?

Hah! What was quickly all-too-apparent was that my then publishers, Viking-Penguin, unfortunately failed to make much commercial capital out of the TV series, which, in fairness to them, was very short lived – only covering two books So that, for instance, they issued a paperback of the third in the series, Cutting Edge, with Tom Wilkinson, who’d played Resnick, prominently on the cover, and that book was never filmed. The series was so short-lived on television there was no time for it to make a significant impact and the books suffered rather than gained as a result.

Bob: Aside from In a True Light in 2001,  there seems to be a bit of a gap from 1998 and Last Rites,Resnick’s swansong, until 2004 and Flesh and Blood, the first of the two Elder books. What happened to John Harvey during those years?

My partner and I had a child, and the deal was that she would go back to work as soon as she was able and I would take time off from writing to look after the baby. Which I loved. And it also gave me time to think about making a small change of direction, the Resnick books seemed pretty played out in terms both of ideas and sales, I was no longer under contract, and I had to think of something a little bit different if I was to continue. So, because I was aware these things were wanted, I thought more thriller than police procedural, and I thought longer. Elder had walked away from both family and job at the end of the story I mentioned before, so he became the vehicle I would use, and then, spending three months in New Zealand helped me to finish the book with, I think, a slightly different perspective.

Bob: Elder is very different from and at the same time a bit like Charlie. He’s not into jazz but he is even more of a loner than Charlie. Once again, how did the Elder character take shape?

I think I’ve already spoken to this, aside from mentioning that because I’d got to know the area of north Cornwall between St. Ives and Land’s End fairly well, I wanted to use it as at least a partial setting. It was only after finishingFlesh & Blood, that we went to live there for a year, just down the lane from where my fictional character had his home.

Bob: Aside from a couple of walk-in parts we haven’t heard from Frank Elder since Darkness and Light in 2006. Are you planning any more books featuring Elder? That question occurred to me in part because you surprised us all a bit with Cold in Hand in 2008 when you brought Resnick out of retirement.

Resnick, as I’ve suggested, seemed right for the story and emotions of Cold in Hand. And it was relatively easy to write about him at length again, as I’d kept up with him with a number of short stories and cameo appearances during the intervening years.

Right now, I can’t see myself writing about Frank Elder again, but then I said that about Charlie.

Bob: 2007, and yet another character. The introduction of Will Grayson, a family man and very much more of a career copper than Charlie or Frank. Was that down to you, or was it a more intentional recognition of the changing face of police detective work with its emphasis on proper procedures and budgets?

Once again, there’s a short story at the heart of it. I wrote a story called “Snow, Snow, Snow” for a collection out together by Bob Randisi in the States and he liked the by-play between Will Grayson and Helen Walker so much, he said I had to write about them in a novel. That was that.

Bob: You are currently promoting the new Will Grayson, Far Cry. For those who haven’t read it yet can you give us a bit of a taster?

The idea for the book came from a conversation with the novelist Jill Dawson had written a novel, Watch Me Disappear [Sceptre, 2006], which had its genesis in the Soham murders, which had happened close to where she lives. When we met, and talked about that novel, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann was very much in the news, and what Jill and I talked about, in the main, was the effect that losing a child in such circumstances might have on that child's parents, and I went away from our meeting with the germ of an idea for a new book, one which would be based upon the very different responses and actions of parents whose child has died suddenly or disappeared.

Bob: John Harvey, the crime fiction writer, is probably among the most recognised UK author in terms of awards. How important are awards to crime fiction writers and how does that recognition compare with huge book sales?

One pays the mortgage, the other doesn’t.

Bob: I have to confess that I am not a great fan of short stories and that ignorance has been evident now in some of the questions I’ve asked you. But the sheer volume of short stories you have written suggests that you do really enjoy writing them. They also seem to provide a vehicle for you to test out characters and themes. Are there any other benefits of short stories for you?

You're right, they can be a useful way of testing out characters you think might be interesting to write about at greater length. "Walking them round the block", as someone - Elmore Leonard? - once said. It's certainly something that he does from time to time. For me, it has also been a way of filling in the gaps between the novels, the Resnick novels for instance, taking the time to keep up to date with some of the minor characters - and Resnick himself. 

Other benefits? By very definition, they're short. You can write a story in one or two weeks and then it's done. None of this 10/12 months lark!

Having said all of that, I've mostly written them because I've been asked to contribute to a particular collection or magazine by an editor who knows my work. This very morning, for instance, I had an email from Robert Randisi in the States, an editor for whom I've written a number of stories in the past, asking me if I'd like to contribute something towards a collection based around the history of the strip tease. Why not?

Bob: Final question. You seem to have fingers in all sorts of pies – crime fiction, poetry, poetry and jazz, children’s writing, publishing, parent and Notts County supporter. Which gives you most pleasure at the end of the day? And what lessons do you have for us mere mortals who can’t seem to manage our time quite as effectively?

I’ve always found it difficult to simply sit around and do nothing – and I’m fortunate to have found pleasure in a variety of things. Spending a lot of my adult life living in my own has helped to make me the kind of person who plans his time so as not to waste too much of it. In some areas, I’m organised, I suppose, to a point some people find slightly ridiculous. There are concert tickets, for instance, for April 2010 already purchased and in drawer waiting, and I’ve renewed my Notts County season ticket for next season. Lessons? Plan. Make lists. Carry them out.

Most pleasure? Watching my daughter working with her sprint coach at the track. Being at the Royal Festival Hall last Saturday, along with both my partner and daughter, watching Viktoria Mullova play the Brahms Violin Concerto. Getting a letter out of the blue from someone a few days, saying how much they’d been touched by my books. Walking, early this morning, on Hampstead Heath. Writing a really good sentence.

Read Bob’s review of FAR CRY

To find out more on John Harvey visit his website



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