Guest:

The downbeat beauty of John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick

Darkness, Darkness is the twelfth, and last, of John Harvey‘s Charlie Resnick novels (though, in fairness, we thought the tenth, Last Rites, brought the series to an end back in 1998!). It is elegiac, but it’s also fresh; as the discovery of a corpse takes the ageing Resnick back to the miner’s strike of 1984, a defining time for a Britain in transition, and especially so for Resnick’s Nottingham. It is the genius of John Harvey that he is able to make the reader feel the turmoil of the time by focusing on the people around the crime, making the giant tragedy and the smaller one work hand-in-hand to create a powerful look back.

9780434022922

Harvey broke new, hard-boiled, ground with the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, in 1989. Nine more followed, like clockwork, one each year. Their influence was immense. Resnick was the spark behind Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Mark Billingham’s Thorne, Graham Hurley’s Faraday and Winter, and many more of our now best-loved detectives. He reclaimed Britain’s mean streets for the sorts of people who walked them, and the sorts of criminals who preyed there. And it didn’t hurt that, in Tom Wilkinson, the BBC found the perfect Resnick for the hugely successful adaptations of Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, for which Harvey did the screenplays.

There has never been a detective less superhuman, nor more human, than Charlie Resnick. Wilkinson understood instinctively that Resnick was defined by an essential loneliness. In many ways he was the antidote to Inspector Morse, trading the lofty spires of an idealised Oxford for Nottingham’s damp grey streets. Morse had his opera, Resnick played classic jazz. Morse did cryptic crosswords, Resnick constructed monkey-puzzle sandwiches. Morse read poetry, Resnick enjoyed the shaky free verse of Notts County football club. Resnick showed the influence of American hard-boiled classics, of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, but more crucially he was a direct descendent of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Swedish detective Martin Beck. Like Beck he is a loner forced to work in a team context. Like Sjowall and Wahloo, Harvey uses Resnick’s stories to reflect on changes in society, and contradictions between appearance and reality (interestingly the Beck series was consciously planned to run for ten novels, just as Resnick originally seemed to be). Beck is an obsessive who finds his quest for solutions, for truth often at odds with the reality of his job. And with the reality of his life.

And this is where Harvey excels, because I can think of no novelist who’s been better at using the story of the crimes being investigated to reflect on the personal situations of the people doing the investigating. The human dimensions of his stories remain unchanged, regardless of the setting, and there’s a persistent quality which Michael Connelly once described as ‘wistful’ about them. They contain a mirroring of the human condition expressed through violence, and more tellingly through emotional pain, inflicted, suffered, repressed, endured. Few writers have used the framework of the crime novel more poetically.

It was through poetry that I first encountered John Harvey, more than 30 years ago when he published some of my poems in his excellent magazine, Slow Dancer. It took me a while to connect him with the author of a couple of fine stand-alone crime novels, Frame (1979) and Blind (1981), but by the time I began reviewing Resnick novels, I’d discovered John had also been one of the last of the great pulp novelists—churning out paperback originals at a peak rate of one per month. It was an apprenticeship that Darkness, Darkness is his 102nd novel, more or less, counting those written by Thom Ryder, Terry Lennox, Jon Barton, James Mann and a handful of other psuedonyms. He wrote everything from biker adventures to teenaged stories of The Tempest Twins; from the novelisation of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo to ten westerns inspired by Sergio Leone about a gunfighter called Hart the Regulator. I confess proudly that I assembled a complete set of them. And before writing this, I searched out a copy of Amphetamines And Pearls (1976), the first of four Scott Mitchell detective novels, a pulpy American-style precursor of Resnick, with much of the darkness but less of the jazz.

Reading Darkness, Darkness, I was reminded of a night about eight years ago when I bumped into John at the Borderline, where the American singer-songwriter John Stewart was playing on what obviously would be his last UK tour. Stewart’s songs provided titles for a couple of John’s pulp novels I (and for my own blog), and as an encore he performed ‘Mother Country’, a song about a horse-breeder who’s going blind and wants to ride his favourite horse one more time. Walking out, we shared our immense sadness, and the sense that Stewart himself was singing with the same knowledge we shared. And that is the quality John Harvey brings to this final Resnick novel, a finish not of melodramatic incident, but of honest and poignant reflection on the way life is, and the way we live it.

In 2011 John published Good Bait, a non-Resnick novel whose title comes from a classic Tadd Dameron jazz song. My favourite version is John Coltrane’s on Blue Train, where the tune tries to escape itself, be free and happy, but can’t quite shake its way out of the blues. That’s how I see Charlie Resnick, and how I think he sees his life as he’s lived it. As John Harvey has written it so well.

By Michael Carlson.

Read about Michael’s top 5 Resnick novels over on Dead Good.
Check out Michael Carlson’s blog, Irresistible Targets.

More guest articles

Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Meet Windmill Books

Windmill is the online home of literary publishers Windmill Books, William Heinemann and Hutchinson. We offer readers exclusive interviews, extracts, videos and articles every day. Sign up to our newsletter for even more.