Y is for … YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE IT (1985) by Bill James

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter Y, and my nomination, is …


“Big boys don’t stop to talk”

This procedural introduced the duo of Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, two policemen in an unnamed British coastal town. It would be followed by another two dozen cases by Welsh writer James Tucker under his James pseudonym (he also writes as David Craig). The series presents the often unflattering and certainly unglamorous side to the activities of the British police force by focusing on the impact the job has on their private lives but also how personal problems can affect in very determined ways how they actually achieve their results.

Although the title makes it sound a bit like some pseudo American thriller from the likes of Peter Cheyney or James Hadley Chase, this is a fairly straightforward procedural, albeit with a strong emphasis on the moral and ethical compromises. The main character is DCS Colin Harpur, the chief of E-Division in an unnamed coastal somewhere in Southwest England. His superior, Iles, is a bit of a subsidiary character here but in subsequent books they will come to share the limelight fairly equally. Their relationship as depicted here is cordial and professional but not especially close. Iles is the politician, Harpur the man at the sharp end of the investigations – but both have been in the job long enough to know that compromises have and will continue to be made. The attempt is to create credible figures and not the usual two-dimensional heroes. The result is that they are frequently less than likeable – and less than kind.

The main story in this book is the pursuit of Holly, a local ‘Mr Big’, trying to catch him red-handed during a bank robbery. The initial stakeout goes wrong however when the robbery is postponed, leading to the possibility that someone in the Force has warned Holly off. Harpur has been relying for his information on the robbery on his informant, the well-heeled Jack Lamb, with whom he has a very questionable relationship. The two are so bound up together after years of clandestine favours in fact that the policeman is put in the position of having to protect his informer (or ‘snout’), who is taking advantage by participating in several scams involving stolen goods, including a Jackson Pollock painting.

“If a cop couldn’t walk that tightrope, he ought to try some other game”

Harpur’s ethical conduct is further put into question when he starts making eyes at Rose, the wife of one of his newest officers on the team, Brian Avery. When the robbery is delayed, Avery, who is very keen to establish himself as a member of Colin’s teams, starts his own private investigation. This however goes disastrously wrong and Avery goes missing and is eventually found murdered. For Colin this becomes extremely personal as Rose is well aware of his attraction to her and she uses this to make sure that Colin will punish those responsible. To do this Colin has been leaning on another informant, Royston Paine, who has a menial job at a local hospital and who has none of the means, and protection, of someone like Lamb. Eventually he too is killed for having helped the police – the best parts of the novel are definitely to be found in the better than average characterisation of Paine and his family and the effect his murder has on the community at large and on Colin in particular as he is well aware that he is the one truly responsible for this death.

You’d Better Believe It offers a decent enough plot and some stronger than average characters in the service of a story of a cynical and morally compromised policeman who tries to mete out justice against cruel villains lacking in any sense of moral code. This is admittedly a formulaic template but the story is well organised and logically worked out so as to reach a believable action climax on an isolated farm. The conclusion ends up by taking Harpur even more to the dark side as he becomes ever more embroiled in Lamb’s criminal activities.

Julian Symons was uncharacteristically sharp in his criticism of this series in his seminal book Bloody Murder, effectively slamming Iles and the characters as:

“synthetic as pushbutton cream … the criminals with whom he tangles are as shallowly characterised as those in TV gangster serials.”

Harsh words indeed and not entirely fair –  Harpur in particular is certainly a complex and potentially fascinating protagonist, albeit a very dark one, making this volume a robust and intriguing example of  ‘Welsh Noir’. The follow-up book, The Lolita Man,  is even stronger – in fact so strong that I couldn’t really face revisiting its queasy-making story of teenage murders recently when I planned to re-read it for this blog a few weeks ago. Instead I recommend you read the truly excellent review by David Gershorn Myers, which you will find at his Commonplace Blog (though it is anything but), right here.

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

This entry was posted in Bill James, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Y is for … YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE IT (1985) by Bill James

  1. Bill Selnes says:

    Life is grim in Southwest England. I find myself torn between reading about flawed characters and wanting virtuous heroes. I find myself gradually less interested in mysteries in which all the main characters lead bleak lives.

  2. Hello Bill – well, you wouldn’t want to read a book like this every week, I grant you (and I say that as someone living in what is apparently the drugs capital of Berkshire …). I first came across James’ work in Italy – it is said that he has a devoted following in France (Symons put that down to a ‘lack of Gallic’ feeling on their part).

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – An excellent review – thank you. I like it when police procedurals (well, any crime novels for the matter of that) are honest about how a murder affects those involved. Whether that involvement is personal, investigational or something else, murder has drastic effects on people. Acknowledging that adds depth and authenticity to a story.

    • Hello Margot, thanks for that. As procedural stories seem to be getting more and more forensic in approach, I find myself increasingly drawn to those with a stronger emphasis on plausible characters, especially if there isn’t some criminal mastermind to defeat!

  4. Steve says:

    I recently purchased half a dozen Harpur and Iles books. I read a couple of them years ago from the middle of the series. I remember enjoying them (I don’t know if that’s the right word, he certainly blurs the lines between cops and robbers). Have you read anymore of the series Sergio?

    • Hi Steve – must admit, the next two in the series are there on the shelf and have been there for a good 5 years … I’ll probably go back just as soon as I run our of Ed McBain books (due to happen early next year at this rate).

  5. Steve says:

    Thanks Sergio, I will be interested to see what you think of him. Definitely an acquired taste. I think he has over thirty books in the Harpur and Iles series now, catching up with Mcbain. Speaking of Mcbain let me say what a great achievement reviewing the complete 87th precinct series has been, you are nearly there. As a big Mcbain fan I have enjoyed all your reviews. Romance next for you I think. If I remember correctly the opening chapter of that one was the same as the closing chapter of Mischief. I know at the time Mcbain was bumping up his number of pages but I don’t remember an author doing that before.

    • Thanks very much Steve, very kind of you. And yes, that’s right, the last few pages of Mischief are replicated in full at the start of Romance before McBain pulls a fast one and makes us think we have moved to the setting from the fictional Isola to New York City!

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