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Bill James

The Do Not Press £6.99hbk

Reviewed by Mick Herron

If it's the sign of a great stylist that you can recognise his work in a blind reading (as it were), then Bill James is up there with the best. Who else could invent a thug who "intended writing a history of the refrigerator … and had already done plenty of research"? Here's a writer who's raised the use of certain words ("brilliant"; "peril") to an art form, and whose novels increasingly read like an unbroken sequence in the same way that, say, PG Wodehouse's do.
James's best known books are the Harpur and Iles series, but he's always been at least as interested in his villains as in his cops-which is not to say that the line dividing them is all that stark-and here they take centre stage, the main man being Julian Corbett (a refugee from novels published under the name David Craig). Corbett's brokering the sale of a massive entertainments complex in Cardiff Bay, currently owned by a nervous pair of crooks, and coveted, with varying degrees of avarice, by many others: he's hoping to become a player, but fretting that it's his fate to remain a middleman-James's criminals are prone to soliloquising on grand topics like fate, history, protocol; they enjoy a lack of self-awareness on a scale only matched in TV's The Office.
And for years I've been trying to find a way of describing exactly how they talk to each other, and here it is at last, provided by the author himself: "They both seemed to have gone into drama-speak, a sort of ham dialogue meant to be flung passionately towards the stalls' back row." I'd detail the rest, but frankly it barely matters. Bill James could write the minutes for his local PTA and have the reader howling with laughter. Other crime writers more admired for their prose than their plots-Chandler, Leonard, Ellroy-have had enormous influence on the genre, usually for the good (I except Ellroy here, almost all of whose imitators are rubbish). But James remains a school of one, and the reason's simple enough: nobody else can do what he does. Style always tells. The man is a treasure. Middleman's a gem.