Turn to your left at a Shostakovich concert in the Royal Festival Hall, and you are quite likely to see the crime writer John Harvey beaming at the pounding orchestral crescendi. If you’re at the Barbican listening to Wynton Marsalis lift the roof with a Duke Ellington piece, Harvey may now be sitting on your right, equally transported. But if Harvey is protean in his musical tastes, he is equally so as a writer. While staying within the parameters of the crime novel, he is always prepared to tackle something new and ambitious. As Good Bait proves.
Harvey made his mark with the jazz-loving detective Resnick – and jazz remains one of the writer’s lodestones (the title here is from a piece by Tadd Dameron). The Resnick books, while very specifically located in Nottingham, were never parochial. This may be why the US master George Pelecanos, not given to praising British writers, has given Harvey his seal of approval. After retiring Resnick, Harvey featured the saturnine copper Frank Elder in a series as contemporary as anything the writer had given us.
Good Bait showcases yet another strand of Harvey’s writing: complex, emotional, messy in the most satisfying fashion. DCI Karen Shields is investigating the murder of a teenage Moldovan boy on Hampstead Heath. Karen is a reminder of how intelligently drawn the author’s female characters are. She is counterpointed by DI Trevor Cordon, working in Cornwall, tracking down a drug-addicted woman’s missing daughter. Both plot strands are handled with great authority. Karen becomes aware that the boy’s death is part of a massive criminal enterprise; her case and that of Cordon intersect with violent consequences.
There is a sense with many crime novels that writers, too concerned with the creaky machinations of their plots, have the riot act read to them by exasperated editors: "Your main characters are underdeveloped! Build up their private lives!" But Harvey would never need such a kick. Involving us with his characters and their prodigious problems is his forte. Readers can only hope that when he is listening to Shostakovich or Ellington, a part of his brain is already formulating the next novel.