BOOKS / This, that and a bit of murder too: After not-quite Chandlers, would-be thrillers and wannabe westerns, John Harvey struck gold with Resnick; Jasper Rees meets an overdue overnight success

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John Harvey is not easily excited, but he's excited now. A recent review in the New York Times Book Review is, in the author's words, 'absolutely the best review you could imagine. The books are starting to happen in the States. And the nice thing is there's a good solid backlist there.' This is truly heroic understatement: if you get really excited about Harvey, there's not so much a backlist as a library to get through.

There are already five distinct periods in Harvey's writing career. First, in the mid-1970s, under the pseudonym of Thom Ryder, he delivers his two hell's angels novels. Then, writing under various names and with occasional collaborators - and at a rate of about one a month - he produces 48 western novels: 'They were absolutely great training'. The next phase, in the late 1970s, yields four cod-Chandler thrillers, 'a classic example of how to write badly under the American influence . . .' the best thing about them are the titles: Amphetamines and Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel, Neon Madman - all taken fom Bob Dylan lyrics. The early 1980s find him writing sub-political thrillers with single-word titles like Endgame, Frame, Blind. He is now just over halfway through period No 5, begun in the late 1980s, a series of 10 crime novels with double-word titles: Wasted Years (book five) and Cold Light (book six), are published this week in paperback and hardback respectively.

The double-word-title books, in which the gritty but witty styles of Elmore Leonard and Hill St Blues slap you about the chops, are by far the most successful, both critically and commercially. They'e better known as the Resnick novels.

Harvey was in his mid-30s and a father of two when he gave up teaching English and drama to take up writing. He justified the gamble by telling himself that he made at least as much doing genre hackwork as he would as a department head. For most of his writing life he lived in Nottingham, where the Resnick novels are set, but recently he was able to migrate to a first-floor flat in one of the swishest streets that flank Hampstead Heath. It was a kind of home-coming, as Harvey was brought up in a Camden council flat.

Apart from delivering an exceptionally satisfying plot, well-tuned demotic dialogue, little nuggets of humour, nice running characterisations of Resnick's colleagues and clever thumbnail sketches of the people just passing through, your basic Resnick novel works hard on its peripheral entertainments. Some readers think they're actually cat novels with murder thrown in (Resnick collects strays). Other readers think they're jazz novels with murder thrown in (Resnick is a jazz buff). Probably there are readers out there who think they're sandwich novels with murder thrown in (Resnick eats messy, baroque sandwiches). And they have a point: you're often a long way into the novel before you meet a corpse.

Harvey insists that he and his hero, a morose romantic liberal of Polish extraction who supports Notts County, have little in common. 'OK, he lives alone and I live alone, but the circumstances of our divorces or whatever are totally different; our past lives are almost totally different. If we weren't different I couldn't write about him. I've got to be able to see him out there.'

Still, this week finds Harvey on a promotional tour of bookshops that involves readings to jazz accompaniment - the sort of event that would find Resnick out there in the audience. On Tuesday night he was at the Earl's Court branch of Waterstone's in London. In performance, which also showcases the forensic qualities of Harvey's lyric poetry, you pick up for the first time the subtle weightings of the prose that pass you by when, book in lap, you hare towards the finish. There has been music in Harvey's writing since he first 'bit the bullet and went out and bought 24 reams of paper' in 1975. Even the two hell's angels novels are packed with musical references. And when you see him tapping his toes to the beat, fixing his phrases to the breathy cascades of the saxophone played by an old school chum, you suspect that this is his way of belonging to, rather than just describing, a world he has always been in love with. 'I played the drums, not all that well,' he says back at home, Chet Baker tootling on the hi-fi, 'from when I was 18 through college at Goldsmiths' until a couple of years afterwards. I could keep time and that was about it.'

No one was interested in Resnick at first. A pacy, dialogue-driven 5,000-word treatment did the rounds and only Viking were tempted. Harvey split with them after book four and is now happily married to Heinemann. He has finally earned the right to take it slow - if you count six months as a long time for a novel - and tinker with form. In Wasted Years, he introduces a long flashback. In Last Rites (book seven), completed this summer, a chapter is written in the present-tense, first-person voice of a female American private eye novelist. 'My test for myself there was not only, will it not sound like Resnick, but will it sound like somebody might actually publish it?'

The first two Resnicks were impressively adapted for television. They starred a hunched Tom Wilkinson, and Harvey, a seasoned adapter, converted them himself. But any further appearances would arise from original scripts, currently in development, rather than adaptations of pre-existent novels. 'I think it gives you more freedom to do things which are right for television but which are not necessarily right for fiction. I don't want to have to think, when I'm sitting down to write a novel, would this make good television?'

Even if the television projects don't come off, his diary is mapped out for several years: three more Resnicks in Nottingham, and a Resnick or two that go back to Poland or over to America. He doesn't know what'll happen when they get there.

'It's very strange, but I see Resnick as someone who has a life of his own. And I'm only privileged to know bits of it. Each time I write a book I find out more about him. That's the luxury of writing about a middle-aged character in a series of 10 books. If I were writing a mainstream novel I wouldn't have that liberty, unless I was writing Proust or something. I'd have to get it all into one book. It sounds kind of hokey I know, but when I'm going to write the book every year it's like you're going to meet somebody that you know quite well, but you're also aware that there are huge bits of their life you know nothing about. I want to know more about it - and hopefully the reader does too.'

(Photographs omitted)