By John Harvey

Five Leaves Publications. 123 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-910170-44-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

John Harvey rightly has a reputation as one of the best contemporary crime writers, his briskly written novels offering not only page-turning stories, but also a commentary on contemporary society. His books are set in a real world that is instantly recognisable, and he writes insightfully about the people, such as the police and social workers, who have to deal with matters most of us prefer to turn away from.

In the first story in this small, limited edition collection, Resnick, his Nottingham-based policeman makes an appearance, investigating the death of a teenager who has fallen or been pushed off a high-rise balcony. It’s not a glamorous crime world that Resnick operates in. He visits the boy’s mother in a dreary flat, and finds her dressed in “cotton draw-string pyjama bottoms, sweater, fluffy slippers”. He can smell the “off-key sweetness of cider on her breath as she spoke”, and notices the empty cans on the table and the recently-opened litre bottle on the floor. Talking to the boy’s hostile girlfriend takes him into the world of paedophiles and abused young people. Harvey doesn’t try to offer any answers to the problems he describes. Resnick, a jaded man, leads a life that, in its way, is almost as desultory as those of many of the people he encounters in his job. Among his few consolations are his cat and the jazz that he loves.

Resnick does enjoy a decent pint of beer, and occasionally meets a retired miner with who he has formed an “unlikely friendship”. He had been a militant strike-leader, while Resnick ran “an intelligence gathering team during the Miners’ Strike, feeding back information that had contributed to the government decimating the coal fields and bringing the union to its knees”. At the time, he reflects, he thought he was helping to save the country from civil disorder, but now, “with each new revelation prised from previously secret Cabinet archives, he felt that, along with many others, he had been manipulated, used, taken for a ride”.

Harvey’s other detective, Jack Kiley, is a private investigator, working out of a shabby flat above a charity shop in North London. A lot of his work involves routine security assignments for large companies wanting to have someone or something protected, or solicitors trying to track down witnesses and the like. Occasionally, and sometimes because of a sophisticated lady friend, he moves into the fashionable world of the arts, which he views with a dry scepticism and a tendency to mock experimental films, overblown poetry, and the kind of art that wins the Turner Prize.

In the story, “Fedora”, he’s asked to look into the possibility of a once-famous photographer having his past, which involved an affair with a fifteen-year old model, brought to light in the current climate of raking up old misdemeanours and often pillorying the offenders and ruining their professional reputations. Kiley locates the girl, now a grown woman with grandchildren, and discovers she has no regrets about what happened and has no intention of making it public. But neither she nor Kiley have taken account of what journalists will make of even a whisper of scandal. What an article in a Sunday newspaper causes to happen takes the story to a bleak conclusion.

Kiley, like Resnick a jazz fan, is also at the centre of “Dead Dames Don’t Sing”, the longest story in the book, and my personal favourite. I’ve written about it before (see Northern Review of Books, September, 2016, and Paris, Painters, Poets, Penniless Press, 2017) when it was published as a small book by the Mysterious Bookshop, New York. I doubt that many people in the UK read the story in that edition, and it’s good that Harvey chose to include it in Going Down Slow.

The story of “Dead Dames Don’t Sing” takes us back, at times, to the bohemian world of Soho in the 1950s, and brings in poetry, pulp novels, and, missing manuscripts, along with the machinations of various shady characters. And it allows Kiley to make his usual caustic comments on what he considers are pretentious people with dubious claims about the art they produce. I have to say that Harvey is knowledgeable about the world of late-1940s and 1950s Soho bebop and bohemianism, and one day will hopefully write a novel set in that milieu. I’m prejudiced when I say this, because it’s territory I find fascinating.

There are seven stories in Going Down Slow, all of them worth reading. If anyone should be tempted to think of Harvey as “just a crime writer” they should think again. His work goes beyond the routines of case solving, and can often count as informed social critique set in a form that enables the reader to take it in easily, and without feeling he’s being lectured. Read “Handy Man”, for example, originally published in the literary magazine, Ambit, which is hardly a crime story in the conventional sense, and manages to deal sensitively with an affair between a lonely, middle-aged woman and a war-damaged young man.