H is for … HAZELL PLAYS SOLOMON (1974) by PB Yuill

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter H, so I nominate …

HAZELL PLAYS SOLOMON (1974) by  PB Yuill

“My name is James Hazell and I’m the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button”

And so begins the first in a series of three brisk novels (and one short story) featuring the East End of London’s answer to Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and the Continental Op. It’s a great opening line, but not really that representative of the tone of the book as a whole, or of the lead character either come to that.

Hazell is 33, recently divorced, a recovering alcoholic and late of the Metropolitan Police Force (following a severe beating from a vicious gang of thieves who virtually destroyed his ankle). After hitting skid row (or the East End of London’s equivalent) he is trying to put his life back together as a private inquiry agent. Although undeniably tough (and emotionally immature) he is also far from being a total cynic – he has a lot more in common say with Ross Macdonald’ Lew Archer (featured in last week’s post) than cro-magnum PI’s like Mike Hammer and with considerably more humour than either.

The book tells a good story well but is perhaps most notable for the fact that it is peppered with cockney slang and abounds with colourful detail about life in the British capital circa 1974, when there was a full-blown oil crisis, the world economy was in turmoil, there was unrest in the Middle East and the country was gripped by a deep depression – sound familiar?

Hazell is hired to do a locate a woman who had a child some six years earlier at a hospital in Bethnal Green. He quickly finds housewife Toni Abrey living in a rundown estate and is immediately attracted to her unusually long knees. Her husband Cliff is currently on strike from the factory where he is a semi-skilled machinist and he is the one who really dotes on their daughter Patricia, who is about to celebrate her sixth birthday. Hazell is quickly smitten with Toni (and truly captivated by her knees, surely a first in literary sexual peccadilloes) and soon they are sleeping together.

It is only when he is really involved with her that Hazell discovers the true implications of his job. His boss is Gordon Gregory, a sharp upper-class lawyer (“he was thinner than a pound note at a slimming farm”) with ‘Venables, Venables, Williams and Gregory’, a sly reference to the names behind the Yuill pseudonym: football manager Terry Venables and novelist Gordon Williams. Gregory is acting on behalf of a rich woman from California who also gave birth to a baby girl at the same hospital six years before – and who believes that the two babies were swapped. It’s a simple plot, and was a fairly original one for its time but one that is also treated seriously, considering the devastation that is going to be caused by any outcome beyond leaving things as they are, which is James’ preferred solution. He usually ignores the more heart-rending sides of his cases but is soon berated by his Mum and even Dot, his landlady and occasional employer, for his lack of feeling, and eventually the case starts to gnaw at him. What also give the story its edge is the way that is used to explore the class divide, James’ humble origins invariably getting thrown in his face as his loyalties between his powerful aristocratic employer, who knows that this truly is James’ last chance to make a career for himself, and the lower class Abrey family, who for all their manifest faults have none of the hypocrisy of those that would try to take their child.

Hazell’s life is complicated further with visits from unsympathetic ex CID colleague ‘Choc’ Minty, who wants a spy in Gregory’s office, and Keith O’Rourke, a villain he helped put away who is now fresh out of jail and looking for revenge on James and his slightly crooked father. The book though is dominated by Georgina Gunning, the East End girl who made good and went to live the good life in America as the wife of a record producer only to discover, through a blood test following a car accident, that her daughter Helen is in fact not her flesh and blood after all. A haughty and difficult woman (“tighter with words than a Paris waiter with change”), the depths of her troubled emotional state only really emerge at the end of the novel, which has several surprises in store.

The books were successfully adapted for TV as Hazell (ITV, 1978-80), with Venables and Williams contributing to the scripts and plot strands filleted from the novels used to make one-hour episodes.

The books are short, zesty and well-plotted and very easy to find second-hand – you’d be a mug not to try one!

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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14 Responses to H is for … HAZELL PLAYS SOLOMON (1974) by PB Yuill

  1. Thanks for this review. I do have to say that’s a very interesting first sentence! I like when novels are able to explore deeper issues as this one does. And I like the complexity of Hazell’s character, too. Time I really explored this series…

  2. Thanks Margot – I really enjoyed reading a compact novel that knew exactly where it wanted to go, how it was going to take you there and then succeeded in arriving at its destination – or is that taking the analogy a bit too far? Hope you enjoy it.

  3. Kerrie says:

    I have a vague recollection of seeing the TV series (or maybe a couple of episodes) with James Hazell as the central character, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never read the book(s). Thanks for this review and for contributing to this week’s CFA

  4. Both the seasons of the TV series are now available on DVD in the UK from Network DVD (http://www.networkdvd.net/product_info.php?products_id=1252) either individually or as a set. It is very much a product of its time, largely filmed on video in the studio which can give it an occasionally theatrical air which does get in the way of a more realistic feel, especially when compared with some of the shows that followed it shortly afterwords like MINDER, SHOESTRING and BERGERAC. But the scripts are mostly pretty good and being made at the same time as the books were written they do really capture the era, not to mention the truly diabolical fashions in all their flared glory.

  5. Darren says:

    I recently read this book, so congrats on your excellent review.

    The book (and the tv series) were both before my time, and I only really knew them via the factoid that they were co-authored by Terry Venables. Now that I think about it, the Venables connection probably prejudiced me into taking the view that the books would be lightweight and gimmicky, but the book had a read hard edge that I wasn’t expecting, and I agree that the evocation of the state of Britain in the 70s was nicely done.

    • Hello Darren, thanks very much for the kind words. Once it became widely known that Venables was the co-author it was assumed by most of us I think that this was just a selling point but apparently the plot about the switched babies in SOLOMON was entirely his and Williams always said that it was a true collaboration. It’s a shame that in all there were only 3 books, a couple of short stories and some TV episodes but at least they stand up to repeated readings, which is more than can be said for a lot of the thrillers published at the same time.

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  7. Anne H says:

    Before PB Yuill ceated Hazell they produced a stand-alone novel The Bornless Keeper. If any copies survive, this is a seriously weird one and good for a laugh. Have just checked ABEbooks and there are plenty of copies around.

    • Hell Anne, thanks for your comments. I may write a quick post on that one, thanks for reminding me – as far as I know this was by Williams alone without the involvement of Venables.

  8. terry says:

    Excellent books these love the lines and hard edge to mid 70’s London. I have the other 2 books but not this one, will get it now!

    The first ep of the tv series is based on this book and I remember that was the only episode I did not like. I think the book will be better though.

    Venables knew people would think of his books as gimmicky so changed the author partnership to P.B.YUILL.

    Kind regards

    Terry

    • Hello Terry, thanks for the comments. The subsidiary plot of the first book, in which someone tries to bump Hazell off while he is house-sitting, got used for another episode later in the series.

  9. terry says:

    Hi cavershamragu

    Yes you are quite right, it was a shame really the tv series only lasted 2 series. I read somewhere that the star Nicholas Ball wanted to have more filmed exterior scenes rather than studio based.

    He asked ITV If they could bring it back in the 90’s but was told no. The Sharman series from around 95/96 starring Clive Owen was a brilliant PI series as well. Never read the books however, have you?

    • I think Ball does relate that in the short interview on the series 2 DVD. There are very few provate eye shows that seem to last long though, especially in the UK with the main exception of the (exceptional) PUBLIC EYE. Even SHOESTRING ended after two series, as did the excellent VINCENT starring Ray Winsone (who at one point was also mentioned as someone who might star in a HAZELL re-make – no idea if that’s even remotely true though. I have not read a Mark Timlin in ages though I’m sure I have some knocking around the house and I really should remedy that – thanks for the suggestion.

  10. Pingback: Straw Dogs (1971) | Tipping My Fedora

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