Ash and Bone (Frank Elder Mysteries)
by John Harvey
A Welcome Return
A review by Georgie Lewis
The joy of finding a damn good mystery author I haven't read before, who has a
nice, hefty backlist, is, to me, akin to finding a vintage Chanel purse in a thrift
store. It happened several years ago when I discovered British crime novelist
John Harvey, about eight books into his Charlie
Resnick series. The older books were sometimes hard to locate in the States,
and I would celebrate every copy, new or used, I could get my hands on. Harvey
completed ten books in the series, announcing the tenth as the last, and then
stopped writing for a good few years. I was bereft. Memories of Colin Dexter killing
off Morse swirled in my mind.
My relief was palpable when I discovered that Harvey had begun a new series
with a new detective, Frank Elder. And the good news is this series has everything
going for it that the Resnick series had. (Actually, Resnick makes a couple
of cameos in this series, reminiscent of some Michael Connelly characters
that sometimes migrate from a lead role in one book to a minor role in another.) The Elder
series began last year with Flesh
and Blood, and like the Resnick series (all right -- like many mystery
series), it features an older detective who is somewhat melancholic, somewhat cynical.
Yet Harvey isn't merely recycling the Resnick series with new names and settings
for the same sorts of characters. Elder is recently divorced, retired, and tightly
bound to his daughter whose fate is in Elder's hands in the first book.
The second book of the Elder series, Ash and Bone, has just been released,
and it is classic British police procedural through and through. Yet the humanity
and distinct natures of the characters create a remarkable emotional resonance
and empathy -- in each case we come across characters both familiar and yet
unique. Stylistically, there are some twists as well. The narrative is quite
unpredictable, and I was surprised at the fate of several characters.
Ash and Bone opens with what might be a frame-up: a police shooting
of a well-known criminal who is temporarily unarmed. Officer Maddy Birch is
there, and can't be sure if her superior planted a gun by the victim's dead
hand. Another officer has been shot and wounded. Maddy's boss assures her she
will be a good witness and insists she join them for a "wee celebration"
afterward. Drinks. "It's expected."
As is her complicity in the lads' club police lifestyle. At the pub a younger,
though higher-ranked, police officer buys her a drink:
"Still looking like the proverbial million, give or take."
Birch had deliberately chosen a green corduroy skirt that was full and ended
well below the knee, a loose cotton top the color of oatmeal, tights and shoes
with a low heel. "I look like shit," she said.
"Young Loftus didn't seem to think so. Practically coming in his pants
just standing next to you."
Color flared in Birch's cheeks.
"Sorry," Repton said. "Nothing out of line I trust. Not going
to hand me up before some board or other? Sexual fucking harassment."
He winked again. "Load of bollocks don't you think? Empirically speaking."
"I've heard worse, sir." Maddy said.
"I'm pleased to hear it."
Small exchanges such as this one near the beginning of the novel (Maddy is
one of the protagonists of the novel, but not one of the major characters) are
the stuff of Harvey's novels. The reader is presented with provocative situations
and difficult relationship dynamics that may never be resolved. There is a power
arrangement in this scene, an unspoken threat of retribution -- or at least
scorn and disrespect. The shooting must be investigated by the internal investigation
group, and loyalties will be tested. The police force, like many workplaces,
has its own society and represents many layers. Harvey examines this society
in Ash and Blood in a way that reminds me of a couple of my favorite
British drama series, Prime Suspect and Between the Lines. In
an obvious interpretation, the social stratum within a tight network mirrors
that of our own lives and social networks.
Without giving too much away (oh, the agonies of reviewing a mystery!), Frank
Elder had a brief moment with Maddy Birch years ago. Frank, now retired
and focused on reconnecting with his traumatized and distant daughter (a result
of actions that Elder took in the first book Flesh and Blood -- although
one need not read the first to understand all of this), recognizes Maddy's name
in connection to the shooting, and Frank and Maggie's lives interconnect once
again. Yet the crime Frank finds himself investigating has labyrinthine proportions,
involving much more than this initial police-shooting.
Ash and Bone tackles many issues -- rape, stalking, domestic violence,
peer pressure, sexual relations, familial estrangement, and police corruption,
along with the odd murder or two -- within an absorbing social narrative and
several unrelated tangents which somehow are elegantly resolved in a surprising
close. It is typical of the best of British crime novels in its lack of showiness,
its gripping story, well-studied range of characters, and nary a plot hole to
be found despite its many layers. It is wonderful to have Harvey back and writing
again. He had been sorely missed.