BY JOHN HARVEY
To the memory of two fine professionals, Laurence James and Dulan Barber, without whom it is doubtful Charlie Resnick would ever have existed-and for Marian Wood, who, as my US editor at Henry Holt, was responsible for keeping Charlie, and me, more or less in line for a good-a very good-ten years. Thanks, Marian.
That I became a writer at all-and that Charlie Resnick, therefore, was brought into existence-was largely due to a series of convenient accidents. You see, I had never harbored any ambitions to be a writer, at least not a fiction writer, and until the time that my first book (Avenging Angel, New English Library, 1975, under the pen name Thom Ryder) was published, I had made no attempts in that direction: no early masterpieces stored beneath the bed or in an adoring parent’s drawer, no prize-winning contributions to some children’s short-story competition. I had, it’s true, both at secondary school and then again at college, edited a couple of student newspapers, gracing them with the occasional review or what I saw as a scathing muckraking expos'e, but this was journalism, nothing more or less, and although, looking back, I’m somewhat bemused to understand why, it never occurred to me that it might be my profession. No. I was destined to be a teacher, an inspirational-well, I was still young-teacher of English and drama to whatever hapless eleven through eighteen year olds found themselves seated before me.
The twelfth year of this career found me in Stevenage, a “new town” an hour’s drive north of London, and I was beginning to feel more than a tad restless. And here, as chance would have it, I resumed close acquaintance with a former college friend, Laurence James, who, sadly, was to die all too early, in the year 2000, when not yet sixty. Laurence had been assiduously working his way up in the book trade-first as a bookseller, then as an editor, and finally as an author. He was living not far from Stevenage, close enough for me to make frequent visits, during which I complained about the nature of my present lot and observed with no little envy the comparatively pleasant life of a fulltime writer. Laurence, it seemed-I later learned the truth to be both more arduous and demanding-would rise in his own good time and, after a leisurely breakfast, make his way into his office, where he would sit behind his desk for an hour or so before pausing for the first of several coffee breaks that would occur throughout the day. And at the end of each of those days, two or three thousand words of manuscript would have been created with apparent ease. No bells sounding at forty-minute intervals to announce a new class and a change of lesson, no recalcitrant or obstreperous youths to chivvy along or bully into submission: just your own quiet room with a stereo and coffee machine close to hand and, in Laurence’s case, an intelligent and lovely wife, who, having shipped the kids off to school, was most likely working on a novel in a room of her own.
My envy must have been evident for all to see, and now, providentially, more good fortune came to my aid. Laurence had been writing a series of rollicking biker books under the name of Mick Norman, and his publishers wanted another; Laurence, however, was committed elsewhere. “You want to write something,” he said. “Here’s your chance.” Except, of course, I hadn’t really wanted to write anything at all: what I wanted was what I saw as the writer’s life-the cottage in the country, the Volvo, the ability to organize one’s own days. Faced with actually producing anything somebody else might want to read, never mind publish, I gibbered and blanched.
But Laurence was persuasive: he gave me the Mick Norman books to read, helped me to assemble a story line and then a synopsis, and sat patiently-well, mostly patiently-alongside me while I rewrote my sample first chapter more than a dozen times. The whole package went to his editor with a strong letter of recommendation, and a month or so later (things moved speedily in those far-off days), I was in possession of a contract. All I had to do was provide a manuscript of fifty thousand words, and the grand sum of two hundred fifty pounds would be mine in return.
Back in Stevenage, still teaching, I worked at the kitchen table of my small flat-holidays, evenings, weekends-and somehow my deadline was met and the finished manuscript shipped off.
Glancing back, it was a strange book, as much about the iniquities of the education system as the roar of marauding Harley-Davidsons, but, to my delight and no little surprise, it was accepted and, graced with the near-obligatory jacket photograph of a young blond woman in an unbuttoned denim jacket astride a motorcycle, Avenging Angel was duly published-and I was offered a contract for a second book at fifty pounds more. I was on my way.
One thing that aided my swift elevation to the ranks of published writers was the happy fact that the mid-’70s were a boom time for British publishing, new paperback imprints springing up seemingly overnight and all greedy for product. And because I had entered the world of writing in the way I had-because to me it was first and foremost an alternative way of earning a living rather than a sign of any higher literary ambition-I was only too happy to oblige. War books, movie tie-ins, apocalyptic adventure stories, teen romances-during the years of my apprenticeship, all was grist for my mill.
Then there was the day an editor from Transworld phoned me and said, “We’re looking for someone to write a Western series. I wondered if you’d be interested?”
One of the publishing phenomena of the period was the success of a Western series called Edge, written by Terry Harknett under the pen name George G. Gilman. In his role as commissioning editor at New English Library, Laurence James-yes, him again-had suggested that Harknett, up to that point the author of middlingly successful thrillers, try his hand at a new kind of pulp Western, violent and sexy, based to a large degree on the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti shoot-’em-ups such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More. A brilliant idea, which Harknett fleshed out in spades. After a cautious start, sales of each new book in the series were nudging the 100,000 mark, and, not surprisingly, other publishers wanted a piece of that pie.
Soon there was a small group of British writers-hacks, as we delighted in calling ourselves-Laurence, of course, Terry Harknett, Ken Bulmer, Fred Nolan, Angus Wells, and me-laboring away at the Western cliff face, more often than not sharing pen names. Between us, while the boom lasted, our titles must have gone well into the hundreds; before shifting tastes and the changing economic climate caused me to hang up my spurs, I had myself written between forty and fifty books in different series.
That I was suited to this was to no small extent due to my father, who had been a great Western fan (Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage was one of the three books forever at his bedside), and while I was growing up, he had taken me to see every Western movie that played in our part of north London. Under his influence, in my early teens I read and reread many of the Hopalong Cassidy novels of Clarence E. Mulford-what is it about Western authors and that middle initial?-and the Buffalo Bill Annual was virtually my bible. With considerable regularity-how did I get away with it so often?-I would skip school and take the Tube into the center of London, the lunch money I had saved bulking out my pockets, and alight at Marble Arch, where, immediately outside the station, a news vendor sold imported American comics: Superman, of course, and Captain Marvel; but also, more interesting for me, the adventures of minor Western movie stars: Rod Cameron, Allan “Rocky” Lane, and Lash La Rue.
So when it came to it, the frontier background-mythic and heavily romantic rather than realistic-was well in place for me. As an example, look at the opening chapter of Cherokee Outlet (Pan, 1980), the first of ten Hart the Regulator books, the only Westerns to have my own name, plus the near-obligatory middle initial, on the cover-John B. Harvey, no less.
He was a tall, dark shape coming out of the sun. Shrouded in his own shadow. A man who rode alone.
Like an orange medallion, the sun hung behind him in the afternoon sky. Its light caught the surfaces of misshapen rock scattered on the hill to the north, making them glow red and silver; it shone on the creek water where a whitetail doe drank nervously; it spread the shadow, long and deep, as horse and rider moved slowly to the east.
Wes Hart rode easily, reins resting across the palm of the left hand, the thumb of the right hooked round the pommel of his saddle. The fingers of his hand were spread wide, touching the leather, never far from the pistol that sat snug in its cutaway holster. A Colt Peacemaker.45, the mother-of-pearl grip carved with the Mexican emblem of an eagle holding a snake it its mouth and between its claws.
He was an inch over six foot, wiry under his light brown wool shirt, seeming lighter than the hundred and seventy pounds that had been his weight for thirteen years. His face was lean and stubbled, the high cheekbones strong against his tanned skin. Above them, Hart’s eyes were a faded blue.
Romantic, certainly; one could see Gary Cooper in that saddle, perhaps, or Robert Taylor, Joel McCrea. But the majority of our heroes, men like Jedediah Herne in the Herne the Hunter series I wrote with Laurence James, were darker, closer to extreme violence and despair. Carved from the same unforgiving granite rock as John Wayne’s vengeful character in The Searchers and the Eastwood of the spaghetti Westerns, this hero was no longer young, a loner with a tragic and troubled past that had left him imbued with a fierce but melancholic anger and a concern for few lives other than his own. He was, perhaps above all, a man not out of place, but out of time. In some respects he was not dissimilar to the Charlie Resnick to come-you see, I have not forgotten my principal theme and subject-yet in others he was cast from quite a different metal.
I got to thinking about much of the above quite recently, sitting one Sunday afternoon in one of the few London cinemas to maintain a repertory program, watching for the umpteenth time Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid-a movie about men out of time if ever there was one.
There’s a moment early on when Billy turns to Garrett, his former running mate, now the lawman who has told him to move on, and says, “We had some times, didn’t we?” And this made me think of all the pleasure, the sheer fun the bunch of us hacks had during our years spent churning out cowboy yarns, and also of how important films like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch were in forming the vision of the West we had.
Sometimes this was present in the detail-in Cherokee Outlet, for instance, Wes Hart recalls his first meeting with Billy the Kid, at which the Kid shot the heads off several chickens, which is a direct reference to the opening of the Peckinpah movie-but more often in the tone and the predicament of the protagonists, who time and again find themselves shut out of a society they know and recognize but that increasingly fails to recognize and accept them.
Inside and yet outside.
Belonging and yet not belonging.
When I began thinking of a central character for the book that was to become the first of the Resnick novels, Lonely Hearts, there were only two things fairly clear in my mind: he would be a policeman rather than a private detective, and-somehow-he would belong to the community he was policing and yet be outside it. What I needed, and finally found in the groups of shiny-suited men of an indeterminate age who spent their days hanging around the entrance to Nottingham ’s Victoria Centre market, was a way of signifying this “difference.” (Yes, sorry, I’d been dabbling in structuralist theory while working for my master’s degree in American Studies and it had rubbed off.)
The men were Polish, part of a large community that had settled in the area around the time of the Second World War; in Nottingham there were two flourishing Polish clubs and a large and well-attended Polish Catholic church. If, I thought, that was the close-knit community to which my character’s family belonged, then it was not too fanciful to imagine him being brought up in a home where Polish was still spoken, but going to local schools where English with a pronounced Notts accent was the common currency, and with one set of customs and expectations vying with the other.
And his name? What about his name?
A friend in New York of Polish origin had the name Resnick; foreign and yet not too difficult for the average insular Brit to pronounce and understand. And then, suddenly, “Charlie” leaped out at me and seemed perfect. Quintessentially English, friendly, unthreatening, approachable, almost-as far as it is possible in England – untainted by class.
Insider and outsider both.
I remember several long sessions talking about him with the late Dulan Barber, who wrote crime fiction as David Fletcher and supernatural thrillers as Owen Brookes, and was both a generous and an unyielding mentor.
Pretty much following the stereotype, I’d decided early on that Resnick would be living alone and that in his past there would be a failed marriage that would be the source, from time to time, of a certain amount of anguish and regret. Anger too.
“What else,” Dulan asked, “do we know about this man?”
His age, his weight, his taste in music, food, clothes?
In a glib moment, I once described Resnick as being akin to Jim Rockford but dressed like Columbo. As shorthand perhaps it works, though the visual equivalent I had most clearly in mind was Sergeant Valnikov, the police detective in Harold Becker’s fine film of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble. As played by Robert Foxworth, Valnikov is a fairly hopeless alcoholic of Russian origin, prone to nostalgia and self-pity and more often than not dressed in a shabby raincoat, tie askew, hair akimbo. Skip the alcohol, switch Russian to Polish, and the picture that remains is close to the one that was forming at the back of my mind.
I don’t know if it was Dulan or myself who first came up with the idea of the sandwiches. But, we thought, a man living on his own and who leads a busy professional life would not have a great deal of time to set aside for serious cooking-though there are instances when he performs near-miracles with a few eggs and whatever leftovers the fridge provides. Sandwiches, though, seemed perfect, especially if the ingredients were mostly bought at one or another of the Polish delicatessen stalls to be found in the market, and at which he could conveniently stop on his way back from the coffee stall where he enjoyed his morning espresso.
It was my decision to make him a lover of jazz. (Dulan’s tastes leaned toward high opera and the songs of Richard Strauss, with a strange but understandable penchant for Dusty Springfield.) A long-term listener to jazz myself-and, for a short period, a less than moderate practitioner-I wanted the opportunity to write about the music I knew, to try and give the reader, as far as it can be achieved in words, a sense of what Resnick is hearing when he listens, be it to Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker or whoever, and to describe as accurately as possible the actual sounds. More than that, I hoped I could make Resnick’s sympathy and enthusiasm for the music say something about the man himself; it might suggest-as, in another way, I suppose, do his culinary appetites-an imaginative richness not otherwise apparent. I also wanted, if I could, to draw a connection between Resnick’s appreciation of that listening experience and his understanding of people and their emotions, the things they feel and do.
Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times some years ago, the critic Lloyd Sachs was kind enough to state, “One of the things Resnick draws from the music is the ability to sense deeper possibilities in people, criminals as well as victims of crime. Just as he is aware of Lester Young’s hard life producing this beautiful music, he sees people leading difficult lives being able to produce something of worth too. Maybe even something beautiful.”
I fear I was less successful with the cats. I had, it’s true, owned cats at different times in my life, but I also harbored, since childhood, a recurring fear of them-see the opening of the first Frank Elder novel, Flesh & Blood (2004). But it was Dulan who was the real cat lover, and it was probably at his instigation that Resnick’s caring nature is revealed through his treatment of no less than four cats, named after jazz musicians, who function as substitutes for the children his marriage failed to provide. In retrospect, I think they are in danger of being cute and little more and too frequently get under the writer’s feet in their need for attention. From correspondence, however, I know there are readers-mostly female and mostly, it appears, living in the United States -who will vehemently disagree.
All of the above, however, means that Resnick’s basic characteristics were pretty much in place before I sat down to write Lonely Hearts, as I think is clear from the beginning of chapter four.
The sandwich was tuna fish and egg mayonnaise with some small slices of pickled gherkin and a crumbling of blue cheese; the mayonnaise kept dripping over the edges of the bread and down onto his fingers so that Dizzy twisted and stretched from his lap in order to lick it off. Billie Holiday and Lester Young were doing it through the headphones, making love to music without ever holding hands. Resnick could not stop thinking about the fact that he had lied to Skelton, wondering why.
His marriage had neither been so bad that he had stricken it from the record of his memory, nor so lacking in incident that he would have truly forgotten. Something over five years and she had walked in while he was painting the woodwork in the spare room and announced that she wanted a divorce. Each year of their marriage he had redecorated that small room at the back of their own bedroom in the hope that one day she might walk in with a glow in her eyes and announce that she was pregnant. Why else did he use alphabet wallpaper in primary colours? Why else the paintwork in bright reds and greens?
Or, as one of the characters observes of him earlier on,
He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.
This last observation was made by the social worker Rachel Chaplin, with whom Resnick becomes involved professionally and personally. It was my intention, I think, that there would be some kind of romantic interest for Resnick in most of the books, each more or less doomed to end badly. Meantime, a relationship of a different kind was slowly building up between Resnick and the junior member of his team, Lynn Kellogg. Cold Light (1994), the sixth in the series, ends (as, in my head, it began) with Resnick thinking of her as “the daughter he had never had, the lover she would never be.”
Shows how little I knew.
Hand in hand with my decision that my hero would be a serving policeman was the assumption that, as such, he would be one-the central one-of a group of fellow officers, a team. In this I was influenced both by police procedurals I had read-Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh, et al.-and those I had seen on TV, early British series like Z Cars and later American ones like Hill Street Blues. In respect to the latter, Resnick would be the middle-management figure holding it all together-Frank Furillo but with a different tailor.
One great advantage, it seemed, of this kind of structure was that it would enable me to employ a multistrand narrative and shift the focus of the story away from Resnick to other members of the team. In so doing, not only could I introduce characters of differing age and gender and sexual orientation, I could also vary the pace and cover more narrative ground. For every chapter showing Resnick listening thoughtfully to, say, Thelonious Monk at home, I could have another in which one of his young DCs chases an armed villain across the rooftops.
The move from writing Westerns to crime fiction was not an instant one; in between I wrote quite a bit of television drama-from BBC Classic serials such as the dramatization of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns to episodes of popular crime series like Spender. Indeed, the last project I worked on before turning to Lonely Hearts was a six-part series I had originated about the probation service, called Hard Cases. This was written about and largely filmed on location in Nottingham, where I was then living, and followed, as far as we were able, the Hill Street Blues pattern to a T. (I sat down with a stopwatch and timed the sequences of that program exactly before planning my first scene-by-scene outline.)
Scriptwriting not only sharpened my use of dialogue and ability to cut between incidents and characters, it made clear both the importance of place and the possibility-I’m tempted to say necessity-of presenting people and their actions within a social context.
I’ve already mentioned Z Cars, a groundbreaking police series that locked into the strong documentary tradition of British cinema with its use of believable working-class characters, regional accents, and location filming. No wonder this was where such filmmakers and writers as Ken Loach, Alan Plater, and Troy Kennedy Martin did a lot of their early work.
I have always remembered an especially harrowing episode of Softly, Softly, the series that grew out of Z Cars, in which the police are investigating serious instances of child abuse instigated within the family. In one of the final scenes, after the abusers have been arrested and taken away, a detective is talking to one of the abused children, making sure the child is all right, and in gratitude the child offers to perform a sexual act-it is the only way that child knows to show thanks and gain approval.
The look on the detective’s face-expressing in a moment revulsion, understanding, compassion, and deep, deep sorrow-has lived with me and, I’m sure, informed some of Resnick’s responses in those parts of Lonely Hearts that deal with a similar theme. Beyond that, it convinced me that the crime story, whether in fiction or on film, at its best can-and should-deal with the same themes and situations that provide the subject matter for more supposedly serious work.
The importance of Nottingham to the Resnick books should not be underestimated. In the simplest of terms, I chose it as the setting for the novels as, certain areas of London aside, it was the city I knew best. I had lived there for quite long stretches of time, initially as a teacher, then as a student, and latterly as a writer. Situated in the less-than-fashionable East Midlands and some 120 miles north of London, it is only medium size as British cities go (the current population is just in excess of a quarter of a million) and so representative in its mix of income, class, and race that it is often chosen by market researchers as one of the key places to try out their wares. That very mix, with low-rent and high-income residences often cheek by jowl, makes it also a good test ground for a writer. All human life, as a popular British newspaper used to boast of its pages, is here.
When I first moved to Nottingham in the mid-’60s, the area was still a center for industry-coal mining, textiles and hosiery, Raleigh bicycles, Players cigarettes. Now most of that industry has either disappeared or downsized to unrecognizable proportions, and it is unclear what, if anything, has taken its place. Nevertheless, in the midst of some severe poverty, poor living conditions, and a struggling education system, pockets of wealth and creativity survive and prosper.
Writers have generally portrayed the city as a rumbustious, lively place with a good kicking about as close as the nearest pint of Shippo’s, and the area as a whole has nurtured a reputation for roughness and violence. Think of Alan Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or, further back, the early short stories of D. H. Lawrence, set in the small mining communities to the west of the city (where I began my teaching), in which it was normal for the wives and children to hide under the kitchen tables when the colliers were on their way home from the pub after getting paid.
More recently, Nottingham has acquired an unwanted and to some degree unwarranted reputation as the murder capital of Britain, thanks to a number of high-profile murders occurring within a short period, overstretching the resources of the local constabulary, and too many well-publicized instances of gun crime fueled both by the drug trade and by rivalries between young residents of various inner-city housing estates.
Rightly or wrongly, I felt that in writing about Nottingham, I was giving the Resnick novels a setting that I could portray with a degree of knowledge and conviction and that Resnick himself could be seen to know and understand. And love. Warts, as they say, and all.
There’s one last question about Resnick I have to address, one I’m often asked: how much, if any, of him is me?
If we acknowledge the fact that, like each of my characters, he comes from some mixture, peculiar to me, of observation and imagination, then the answer is very little. In simple terms, I don’t live off sandwiches or have four cats; I am not childless and rarely spill food down my tie. Not that, Detection Club dinners aside, I ever even wear a tie.
But his Nottingham is, or has been, mine. For years I walked across the city center, midmorning, to take my place at the same coffee stall.
My first real experience of listening to Billie Holiday came when shuffling through a pile of old vinyl 78s belonging to a school friend’s uncle-“I Cried for You” by Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, with Billie Holiday, vocal refrain. There among the Earl Bostic and early Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. For Resnick, in Cutting Edge (1991), this became an occasion when, as a boy, he visited the house of an uncle who worked as a tailor-with thumbs like sheet metal and fingers like silk-who had visited America and returned with a bundle of recordings that the young Resnick pored over and listened to with wonder.
Resnick had sat in hushed silence with black tea and dry cake while his uncle hand-sewed buttonholes and hems and his cousin swayed her legs softly to the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, four voices and a guitar. After a while, his uncle would tap his thimble on the table and wink at Resnick and then they would listen to Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Luis Russell’s “Call of the Freaks,” Fats Waller and his Rhythm, “The Joint Is Jumpin’.”
What helped to make Resnick was a patchwork of things, memories that, as will happen, came back to me in the course of writing and that, where suitable, became in some altered state a part of his past. Other incidents, like the one described below, also from Cutting Edge, although slight, could be dovetailed into the story to give a sense of the kind of man Resnick is and the world he inhabits.
It was raining again: a fine, sweeping drizzle that seeped, finally, into the bones, chilling you as only English rain could. On a makeshift stage at the center of the Old Market Square, the Burton Youth Band were playing a selection from the shows to a scattering of casual listeners and a few sodden relatives who had made the journey over on the band coach. Off to one side of the stage, in a row of their own, a boy and a girl, eleven or twelve and not in uniform like the rest, sat behind a single music stand, mouths moving as they counted the bars. Resnick watched them-the lad with spectacles and cow-licked hair, the girl thin-faced and skimpily dressed, legs purple-patched from rain and wind-nervously fingering the valves of their cornets as they waited to come in.
It was close to where Resnick was standing that Paul Groves had sat, staring off, and talked about his friendship with Karl Dougherty. “I touched him one time and you’d have thought I’d stuck a knife right in his back.” Once, while he and Elaine were still sharing the same house, truth spilling like stains everywhere between them, they had passed close together near the foot of the stairs and Resnick, unthinking, had reached to touch the soft skin inside her arm. He could picture now the hostility that had fired her eyes: the already instinctive recoiling.
The band hit the last note of “Some Enchanted Evening” more or less together and Resnick clapped, startling a few dazed pigeons. An elderly lady wheeling her shopping trolley across in front of the stage dropped a coin into the bass drum case that was collecting puddles and contributions towards the band’s winter tour of Germany and the conductor announced the final number. Time to go, Resnick thought, but he stayed on as the two beginners lifted their instruments towards their lips. The conductor waved a hand encouragingly in their direction, the wind lifted their sheet music from its stand and their chance was lost. Without hesitation, the boy retrieved it and Resnick watched the girl’s pinched serious face as, biting the inside of her mouth, she struggled to find her place in time for the next chorus. Only when they had played their sixteen bars and sat back, did Resnick turn away, tears, daft sod, pricking at his eyes.