British author John Harvey, the author of over a hundred a hundred books, is the creator of the celebrated series featuring Nottingham policeman Charlie Resnick. Mystery novelist Sue Grafton calls Resnick “one of the most fully realized characters in modern crime fiction; complex and capable, a man who not only loves justice, jazz and cats, but who can turn the construction of a sandwich into a work of art.” London’s Daily Mail noted of the author: “Harvey is a good as they come; a writer of consummate elegance and deft characterisation, never wasting a word in what amounts to a master class in crime writing.”
In addition to the eleven books in the Resnick series, Harvey also writes the popular Frank Elder books, the first of which, Flesh & Blood, won the CWA Silver Dagger Award and the Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel. Harvey is also a poet of note.
John, it’s wonderful having you on Scene of the Crime. I have long been a fan of the Resnick books, so if you don’t mind, maybe we can concentrate on those.
To start us off, could you describe your connection to Nottingham?
Nottingham is the city I’m most associated with, having set 11 Charlie Resnick novels there, in addition to a good few short stories. Before the first of the Resnick books, I wrote a series for Central Television about the Nottingham probation service which was called Hard Cases, and it was writing the scripts for this that pushed me towards the idea of writing a crime novel with a setting that by then I knew pretty well. Then there were the adaptations of the first two Resnick books, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, which, like Hard Cases were largely filmed on location in the city.
I lived in Nottingham first in the mid-60s, when I was a secondary school teacher, went back again the late-70s to get my masters in American Studies, ended up staying there for 10-12 years. Since that time, I’ve lived there for a 2 year spell, and, because my son lives there now, I go back to the city quite often, both to see him and to watch (for my sins) Notts County [a football club].
What things about Nottingham make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Nottingham is quite a small, compact city, in which those with little money can live more or less cheek by jowl with the more fortunate. It also, together with the surrounding area, has a long-held reputation for toughness and violence – something which escalated in the 90s largely due to media emphasis on the city as a site for gun crime.
Like a lot of British cities it has seen its industrial base progressively eroded and the late-80s, when I started writing the Resnick series, was a time of high unemployment and dissatisfaction – it was that background that I wanted to bring into the books. I suppose I’m more interested in writing about characters whose actions, criminal and otherwise, stem from sociological and economic reasons rather than individual psychological ones and writing a series of books in the same urban location gives me the opportunity to do that.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your Resnick books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I think that as the series developed I became more conscious of the extent to which Nottingham and the surrounding area were an important part of the books’ texture.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I’ve always found it much easier (in so far as ‘easy’ might be the correct word) to set my action and characters in locations I know well. Hence Nottingham. And hence, in later books, the Penwith peninsula in Cornwall, the fenland around Ely and north London around Kentish Town and Holloway. So generally, given the odd name change for premises – pubs, et cetera – I’ll give locations their actual names.
Resnick is simultaniously an insider and an outsider; as the child of Polish parents who settled in Nottingham during WW2, he would have been brought up hearing Polish, attending the Polish club in the city and so on; but he would have been educated in regular Notts schools alongside the locals, so would have grown up within two cultures. This enables him to know the city well, and care for it and its inhabitants, while also being able to regard it with a ‘foreign’ eye. The Polishness is shown in part in the extravagant deli sandwiches he makes for himself and also allowed me, somehow, to make him a major jazz fan.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Local reaction to the books, the Resnick books in particular, has generally been positive, though on a couple of occasions people employed by the council to nurture the city’s reputation have asked me whether I felt any sense of responsibility towards the city when I was writing. (Answer, no. Truthfulness, aside.)
But local radio and press have always been very supportive, and continue to be so, and it’s the one location where the crowd at any book event I might do has numbers closer to three figures and a mere dozen or so!
The Founding Fathers invited me to give the introductory speech on the occasion of Alan Sillitoe being awarded the Freedom of the City, and in 2009 the University of Nottingham awarded me an honorary degree, DLitt.
Of the Resnick novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“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 welve 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 l’d stuck a knife right in his back. Once, while he and Elaine were still sharing the same house, truths 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 wheeled her shopping trolley across in front of the stage and 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.”
And the second:
“In the square, a fifty-year-old man, trousers rolled past his knees, was paddling in one of the fountains, splashing handfuls of water up under the arms of his fraying coat. A young woman with a tattooed face was singing an old English melody to a scattering of grimy pigeons. Resnick stood by one of the benches, listening: a girl in denim shorts and overlapping T-shirts, razored hair, leather waist-coat with a death’s head on the back, tanding there, oblivious of everything else, singing, in a voice strangely thin and pure, ‘She Moved Through the Fair.’
“When she had finished and Resnick, wishing to say thanks, tell her how it had sounded, give her, perhaps, money, walked purposefully towards her, she turned her back on him and moved away. On the steps, in the shadow of the lions, couples were kissing. Young men in shirt sleeves, leaning from the windows of their cars, slowly circled the square. Across from where Resnick was standing was the bland brick and glass of the store that twenty years before had been the Black Boy, the pub where he and Ben Riley would meet for an early evening pint. The glass that ten years ago was smashed and smashed again as rioters swaggered and roared through the city’s streets.
“No way to hold it all back now.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Favourite writers: to name a few – Hemingway, Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield, Thomas McGuane, Alice Munro, Elmore Leonard, John McGahern, Raymond Carver, William McIlvanney, Lorrie Moore, George Pelecanos, Peter Temple.
Writers who’ve influenced me (aside from everyone I’ve read, for good or ill)– Hemingway, early DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard
Charlie Resnick is resting, contemplating an uneasy retirement. The book I’m currently working on, Good Bait, features two protagonists, DCI Karen Shields, whom I’ve previously written about in Ash & Bone and Cold in Hand, and the Cornish police detective Trevor Cordon, who was in Far Cry.
John, thanks again for stopping by Scene of the Crime.
For more information on John Harvey and his books, see his homepage.