Flesh and Blood by John Harvey
Tenderness and cruelty on the run
Friday 07 May 2004
It is a brave writer who changes tack from a successful formula. John Harvey has taken the risk, and it has paid off handsomely. After 10 of the Charlie Resnick series, featuring a lonely, jazz-loving Nottingham policeman, that complex character looked set to rival Rebus. Elmore Leonard has said that Harvey is "a stylist who tells you everything you need to know while keeping the prose clean and simple", and compared him to Graham Greene.
Although Harvey was among the few crime writers to gain generous plaudits from the literary world, the Resnick books never made it to the ranks of fame. The problem has been Nottingham: interesting though the author made that city, Harvey's hero was confined to a small world, lacking the strangeness and variety of Rebus's Edinburgh.
Harvey's previous book, In a True Light, departed from Nottingham to explore the underworld of art. Now he returns to a policeman as central character, but with a difference. In Flesh and Blood, he has new settings, as well as a detective whose wide-ranging physical world can match an interior odyssey.
Retired DC Frank Elder is running from his past, from personal betrayal and professional doubt. He is haunted by the disappearance of 16-year-old Susan Blacklock, 12 years previously. Two men, convicted of the murder and rape of another girl, were Elder's prime suspects. One of them, Shane Donald, obtains early release from prison.
His barrister claimed that Shane was himself a victim of abuse, led into the crime by an older, dominating character. How far was this special pleading, and how likely is the youth to repeat the crime? These questions drive the plot as Shane breaks parole, kidnapping his social worker. He forms a relationship with Angel, a damaged teenage girl, and together they travel around the fringes of society, dubbed the "21st-century Bonnie and Clyde". Their relationship of violence and dependency is powerfully described, with its intermingled gentleness and brutality.
Elder, from his redoubt in Cornwall, sets out to track Shane down, haunted by the memory of the previous killing and fearful of another. The man convicted at the same time as Shane is still in prison, but has not lost his ability to manipulate, nor his savagery. Elder's quest takes him on a long journey across Britain and ultimately to the other side of the world, as well as moving through Harvey's stomping ground of Nottingham. The plot twists and turns as another girl is murdered in a beauty spot and Angel becomes aware of Shane's cruelty.
Elder's difficult relationship with his daughter is subtly achieved, as is his affair with the mother of the vanished girl. These histories are interwoven with scenes from the life of the psychopathic young killer. His unpredictable mixture of tenderness and cruelty is frighteningly well delineated, reinforcing the well-plotted suspense of a book with a depth few works of crime fiction attain.
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