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John Harvey Interview

1 June 09 interview: James Walker

"My style probably owes more to Hemingway than any other single writer, though I’ve tried hard to crib the art of dialogue from Elmore Leonard"

He was one of the first people to publish Simon Armitage and Sue Dymoke when he formed Slow Dancer Press in 1977. His 101st publication comes out in June. He is a former University of Nottingham lecturer and a devout Notts County fan. But most of all we love him for immortalising Nottingham through the jazz-loving Polish detective Charlie Resnick. With Cold in Hand bringing a close to the series we caught up with the seventy-year-old author who has won more awards than his beloved County.

You are predominantly known for writing crime, yet started out writing westerns...
It was what the publishers were buying. It helped that my dad had taken me to every western that ever played in north London when I was growing up - and bought me the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual. Elmore Leonard said the reason he started writing crime fiction was that the market for westerns dried up; if the market for crime dries up, maybe I’ll go back to writing westerns.

Who has been an influence on your style?
My style probably - and hopefully - owes more to Hemingway than any other single writer, though I’ve tried hard to crib the art of dialogue from Elmore Leonard. William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, a police novel set in Glasgow, gave me a sort of green light, as did the Swedish crime novels by Sjowall & Wahloo. But really, all writing - good writing - to a greater or lesser extent affects what you do.

The Resnick novels favour simplicity over say the inner workings of someone's mind...
I don’t think using a simple style means you can’t go into the inner workings of someone’s mind, you just wouldn’t do it in the manner of Virginia Woolf. You might show it through dialogue or external observation, for instance. Nor do I think that a simple style means you can’t have a complex narrative; I think, for instance, that the narrative of the new book, Far Cry, which moves between locations and time zones, is fairly complex. But I use a style that, on the surface at least, is relatively simple because I think it’s most suitable for the kinds of stories I’m telling. Why use two words when one will do?

Lonely Hearts kick-started the Resnick novels; where and when did you decide to write about this character?
I’d just finished writing a series for Central TV called Hard Cases, which was filmed in Nottingham and dealt with a fictional probation service team. It gave me the idea of doing an ensemble piece based in the city. Hill Street Blues was something of an inspiration behind the TV series and Lonely Hearts, with Resnick as a middle-management police officer along the lines of Hill St’s Frank Furillo. As the Resnick series developed I realised I wanted to show something about inner city life at a certain time of change.

Violence is a big feature of inner city life in Cold in Hand. As it is based in Nottingham do you see it as a local or national problem?
Amidst the spate of fatal stabbings that beset London last year, one was less than 150m from where I now live. The immediate area was recently designated an anti-social dispersal zone, giving the police powers to move on groups of more than three or four and return any under-16s to their home. Most afternoons, in addition to the normal community support officers, there’s a transit full of regular officers parked outside the local mixed comprehensive - and a few weeks back someone chased a youth into the school playground with a sawn-off shotgun. So, not just a Nottingham problem at all.

Is there a solution?
Some of the police activities described above keep the lid on trouble and/or move it elsewhere. None of them touch the root causes. Youths go around angrily demanding respect because the society they’re growing up in affords them precious little, but, by the same token, some of them do little enough to earn it. By and large, we’ve become a society that lives by false values, whether you think those values are best epitomised by Jade Goody or Sir Fred Goodwin or both. Despite Labour Party promises, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

As you deal with crime, I was wondering how Nottingham Council perceive your work?
The last few times I’ve read in the city someone associated with the Council in some way has come along and often asked if I didn’t feel some sense of responsibility towards the city and the picture of it I was giving. If I have a responsibility it’s towards getting it right - as right as I can. But I’m writing crime fiction, not sanitised brochures, and anyway, I think there are far more important things to be concerned with - Nottingham’s reputation is far more seriously damaged by the poor results of its schools or teenage pregnancy rates than by my books.

How do you go about researching a detective novel?
My research is pretty minimal and mostly consists of reading the newspapers, local and national, and, nowadays, doing a little rolling around the net. I do have a police contact, a senior CID officer from the Nottingham force, now retired, and it’s to him that I go with my queries about procedure and he will read through all or part of a manuscript, trying to stop me straying too far from the probable.

Do you have a favourite literary detective?
The American writer K.C. Constantine has written a number of novels about Mario Balzic, a police chief in a small industrial town, who is a fully-realised character beset with personal and professional problems. He attempts to solve these with honesty and dignity and ‘nous’, and occasionally succeeds. Jamie Harrison’s books about Jules Clement, the sheriff of Blue Deer, Montana, are funny and perceptive and as much about relationships and cooking as they are about solving crime.

And on screen?
I love the character of Sgt. Valnikov as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s 1980 film from the Joseph Wambaugh novel, The Black Marble. With his eastern European background, though Russian not Polish, he was quite influential in the development of Resnick’s character.

So why Polish for Resnick?
I wanted to find a reason for Resnick, though brought up in Nottingham, being something of an outsider; the obvious presence of a large Polish community in the city gave me a way of doing this.

Were you involved in the screen casting of Resnick in the nineties?
Yes, I was involved in the choice of Tom Wilkinson as Resnick. As far as I was concerned, he was a pretty perfect incarnation of my character and has helped when writing about him since as, in my mind, he now has Tom’s face.

Why did you decide to end the Resnick series?
After ten books I felt I was getting into a rut. Then, ten years on from Last Rites I felt ready to write about Resnick again, mainly as I had a story that was right for him, and the result was Cold in Hand.

You and Resnick share a love of jazz. How, why, when?
There was a jazz club at school - just a bunch of us sitting round listening to records - and then when I was about 16 we started going to jazz clubs to dance and listen to the music and, hopefully, meet girls. In those days, the mid- to late-fifties, it was what you did. I played tea-chest bass in a skiffle group at around that time and then started playing drums. Still scarcely a day goes by without me listening to some Thelonious Monk.

You can invite any four people to dinner... who do you choose?
Hard! The writer Thomas McGuane, whose books I love and admire; the pianist and composer Joanna MacGregor; the British abstract expressionist painter, Albert Irvin, whose work I love and who has remained lively and open into his eighties; and lastly another writer, Geoff Dyer, because his interests are so diverse and because he makes me laugh like no one else.

Any advice to budding writers on our forum?
To paraphrase Stephen King: read a lot, write a lot, read some more.

Minor Key is published in June by Five Leaves £9.99. Far Cry was published in May by William Heinemann £8.99. John will be appearing at the Lowdham Book Festival on Saturday 20 June.

John Harvey's website

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