Darkness And Light by John Harvey

Elegantly told tale of an ex-copper who hears ghastly echoes of the past
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The Independent Culture

If you are one of the many crime aficionados who lapped up the first outing for John Harvey's retired cop Frank Elder, make the most of this second appearance - there will be only one more.

Harvey is obviously aware that there would be only so many times he could have his ex-copper riding out of the West (via the A30 or the Penzance-Paddington train) to solve a crime, interact awkwardly with ex-colleagues and try to mend fences with his daughter. After all, Harvey created (and terminated) the successful Resnick books, and knows well how to kiss goodbye before staleness sets in.

Frank Elder is a very different kettle of fish from his jazz-loving predecessor, and one of Harvey's masterstrokes in this series is to render his hero neutral and almost colourless. He reads books, but nothing in particular; he isn't, unlike Resnick, particularly keen on music (anything classical he automatically assumes is Mozart). But his private life is delineated with consummate skill. It's familiar stuff (broken marriage, resentful grown-up daughter), but the unforced nuances have real richness.

Once again, Frank is coaxed out of retirement, this time by his ex-wife, to investigate the disappearance of a friend of hers. Has she been murdered? Elder becomes aware that the missing woman has led an active (and clandestine) sexual life, taking the risk of meeting partners via the internet. As to the mechanics of the narrative itself, Harvey is such an old hand at this sort of thing that he doesn't really have to try. The witnesses and suspects Elder encounters in the first part are a somewhat bland bunch, and it's Harvey's truly elegant writing that keeps impatience at bay.

But halfway through, a change of gear screws down our attention. Elder finds echoes of a case he'd worked on with Maureen Pryor, his ex-partner. The missing woman is found dead, arranged on her bed. Is the killer the same individual Frank and Maureen failed to nail years before?

Such is Harvey's commanding skill that we forgive him anything - such as the book's slowish start and a reliance on some unlikely plot contrivances. We simply relish the adept characterisation and meticulous attention to detail.

Perhaps, when the third and final Elder book appears, Darkness and Light may be seen as the adagio movement in a symphony, in which the audience is allowed to relax before the accelerando of the finale.

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