Cold in Hand by John Harvey

Out of the comfort zone

Is the following a Britain that you recognise: violent confrontations between young black males in urban areas, which end up with somebody bleeding from a stab wound or a bullet? Or Eastern European pimps, trafficking vulnerable young women into the country for sexual slavery? Or a police force hamstrung by constant accusations that they do not respect the human rights of criminals?

A Daily Mail editorial? No, this is the world we are taken into by one of our most respected crime writers, whose record as poet and publisher also consolidates his credentials as an unimpeachable part of the liberal-left literary establishment. So when John Harvey presents this scarifying picture of Britain in his latest novel, attention must be paid. This worrying (but trenchant) book may be a disquieting experience for readers, as liberal shibboleths are toppled. With unflinching rigour, Harvey stripmines this dystopian society and renders its horrors with his customary skill.

Policewoman Lynn Kellogg is caught between brawling street gangs, and unwisely attempts to defuse the situation. The result is mayhem; one young girl is mutilated, another lies dead, shot by a young man wearing a bandanna. The policewoman herself is shot and hospitalised. She is visited by her anxious lover, another copper – whose name happens to be Charlie Resnick. Now (Harvey fans may feel), we can relax: good old Charlie, mainstay of the Nottingham force, jazz lover, a man whose very presence reassures us that some kind of order can be brought out of the chaos.

Will we be in the comfort zone engendered by the earlier Resnick books, however grim the inner-city problems Charlie encountered? Such consolation, however, is not what Harvey is dispensing in this book. At every opportunity, he snatches away the feeling that all could be made right in this worst of all possible worlds.

The problems Charlie runs up against while investigating the girl's death are the tip of an iceberg, with some very nasty traffickers stirred into the lethal brew. As in much of the best crime fiction, this is a state-of-the-nation novel, and Harvey suggests that his own vision may have become as nihilistic as that of the sociopathic characters that populate Cold in Hand. But this is no hand-wringing tract. The book is quite possibly Harvey's most authoritative in years: visceral, engaged and, yes, unputdownable.

Heinemann £12.99 (405pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897