|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.