HOME   UP

 

 BODY AND SOUL

By John Harvey

William Heinemann. 298 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-7851-518-0-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

One-time detective Frank Elder is retired, divorced, has an uneasy relationship with his daughter, and lives in Cornwall. He occasionally does a little work for the local police force, and sometimes connects with Vicki, a singer who appears in small jazz clubs around the South-West and South-Wales. John Harvey always writes knowingly about jazz, both its rhythms and emotional impact, and the kinds of places where it can be heard.

Harvey is also good on art, and it turns out that Elderís daughter has had an unhappy relationship with an established older artist who persuaded her to model nude for him before breaking off their affair. The descriptions of art classes, the artistís studio, the vicissitudes of modelling, and, it is suggested, the ruthlessness of many artists when it comes to their treatment of other people, are powerfully evoked in Harveyís writing. When Elder attends the opening of the artistís exhibition, and observes how his daughter has been used in what are near-pornographic paintings, he knocks him down. Later, the artist is found dead in somewhat bizarre circumstances, and for a time both Elder and his daughter come under suspicion by the police.

The backstory brings in earlier events when Elderís daughter had been kidnapped and raped by a predatory sex criminal who escapes when a prison van is involved in an accident. So, Elder finds himself facing up to problems relating to the artistís death and the threat presented by the criminal who is at large. The facts of his fractured relationships with his ex-wife and his daughter, and a tendency to lose his temper when under pressure, donít make life easy for Elder, or for those close to him. From a storytelling point of view, it all helps to bring tension to the narrative.

Likewise, the detectives involved in the enquiries into the artistís murder, and the hunt for the escaped criminal, are skilfully portrayed as Harvey cleverly juggles with the different investigations. What we see are not cardboard characters just brought in to fill up spaces in the scenes, but people with attitudes and reactions that add realism to the unfolding events. The effect is that itís possible to visualise the police and the people they are dealing with.

There isnít any intention to romanticise the police. They can be crude with their humour at times, and some of them can be prone to occasionally taking a backhander to slip information to hovering journalists anxious for a scoop. The sort of journalism that isnít averse to sensationalising a story to sell newspapers is briefly but sharply outlined at one point in Harveyís novel. But for the most part the police are shown to be hard-working and conscientious in circumstances that most of us would find deeply disturbing.

There are aspects of the writing that show that Harvey isnít simply content to tell a sketched-out story, and he deftly brings in little asides that place his characters in context. Elderís location in Cornwall is evoked by references to the landscape (ďDown below, the distant curve of St Mountís Bay stretched out towards Lizard Point; above them, a patchwork sky and a buzzard hovering on a current of air.Ē) Itís descriptive in a painterly way, and itís perhaps not surprising that Harvey elsewhere refers to the Lamorna artists in Cornwall and, when the action moves north, to Runswick Bay, where the Staithes artists painted in the late nineteenth century.

As for the contemporary social scene against which the action takes place, there is this passage:

ďThe walk from the hotel to the station took Elder past two shopping centres, one of which seemed to be partly closed, and the boarded-up branches of two well-known department stores. He counted five men and one woman sleeping rough, three Big Issue sellers, one busker playing a penny whistle, two out-and-out beggars.Ē

On the underground he hears ďpeople speaking in French and Spanish, Urdu and Italian, Polish and Russian.Ē A newspaper that Elder buys has news ďabout Europe, Syria, the shenanigans of pop stars heíd never heard of, actors in television series heíd never seen.Ē Elder realises heís ďbeen down in Cornwall too long.Ē Itís easy to understand that heís deliberately cut himself off from the wider society, and being drawn back into it is something of a shock.

I heard John Harvey when he was interviewed on a book programme on BBC radio recently, and he made a point of stressing that Body and Soul is the final novel in the Frank Elder series. And it will be his final novel generally. He will continue to write short stories. He has had a long and productive writing career (think of all the Resnick novels, and the poetry he has written) so he can relax honourably into semi-retirement, if indeed thatís what it is.