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by Bill James
Constable , August 2008
224 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 1845297059

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Assistant Chief Constable Esther Davidson has been getting nowhere with her investigation into the biggest criminal gang on her 'patch', the 'Cormax Turton Guild'. She decides to send in an undercover, or in the current jargon 'out-located', operative to provide her with a means of bringing the Guild down. The operation goes horribly wrong however and Esther has to try and deal with the aftermath. Meanwhile she has to contend with her depressed and occasionally violent husband Gerald, an unemployed bassoonist.

IN THE ABSENCE OF ILES is the 25th book in the Harpur and Iles series, the first of which was published in 1985. And Bill James (not to be confused with Peter, Russell or for that matter P.D.) has written a number of other books both as Bill James but also as David Craig and James Tucker. For the reviewer who is new to the author and series this presents a number of problems in any assessment of this particular book as against the total body of work. As I fall into this category no such assessment will appear here. I proceed on the assumption that IN THE ABSENCE OF ILES is a fairly typical entry in the series, although Harpur does not appear at all and Iles, while very far from totally absent, is not the central character.

There are also peculiar problems in describing the book. These can be illustrated by listing a number of things missing; there is very little plot, very little suspense, the book is not in any conventional sense realist, there is very little sense of place, minimal sociological observation, not a great deal of psychological observation (in, say, a Minette Walters mode). Given these absences it might seem fairly peculiar both that the series has prospered so well and that the book is in some ways highly readable. A part of this no doubt arises from the fact that all these absences inevitably mean that the book is markedly different from the vast majority of mystery fiction. A Bill James book, I sense from reading just one, is very distinctly a Bill James book.

However there are also some distinctive elements which are present. The most important of these is that the book seems to inhabit its own universe. I certainly do not mean this in any science-fiction sense, but rather that there is a Bill James 'world' which has very strong resemblances to the real-world but is whole and entire to itself. It is significant here that Bill James has written a lit-crit study of Anthony Powell who is certainly the greatest 20thC British writer of the parallel world (in A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME); in 19th century terms one might think of Balzac or Trollope. This is not to say that the Bill James world is especially literary; the references in IN THE ABSENCE OF ILES tend to be to the world of cinema (RESERVOIR DOGS or THE GODFATHER films) rather than to 'high' culture. But the prevailing sense is certainly not of realism but of the creation of an alternate-reality to examine and reflect on the our own. This kind of approach, reasonably common in fiction as a whole, is fairly rare in mystery fiction and can only be evolved over a series of novels.

The other two distinctive elements which can be identified are first a concern with language and with ways of speaking. Once again this is not in any especially literary sense but rather a fascination with dialogue and hidden meanings. Secondly there is a fair bit of very black humour. This is inevitable given that nearly all the major characters are to some degree or another pretty unpleasant (and this certainly includes the obnoxiously rude Iles himself).

Given all these distinctive features, it becomes quite easy to see why there should be devoted aficionados of Bill James's voice who eagerly snap up each new book. And IN THE ABSENCE OF ILES is certainly an interesting book. For me the absences, particularly as far as plot is concerned, mean that I remain unconvinced but I would certainly recommend that every mystery fan give a Bill James a book a go because I can quite see that for some they would be a real delight - and if so then you would have discovered a great deal of reading pleasure.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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