John Harvey is one of our finest writers and poets. With his Charlie Resnick series, John has helped to keep Nottingham on the literary map and he continues to be a much valued supporter of our writing scene. Many happy returns John.
Sandeep Mahal, Director Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature.
John Harvey was born eighty years ago on the winter solstice, that darkest of days, fitting for the master of Nottingham noir. With top contributors from the world of words we mark John’s birthday and detect how an accidental writer came to create one of Nottingham’s greatest characters.
Born close to his current home in north London, John Harvey was an only child, his mother in the rag trade, his father a clerk. As a young boy John was introduced to Alison Uttley’s Rabbit books before Biggles and Buffalo Bill became his characters of choice. Friday nights were for westerns, the cinema helping to school John in the ways of the wild west. He was still reading westerns in his teens, as well as the obligatory Hank Janson thrillers and hardboiled crime. By the sixth-form, Steinbeck and Hemingway were the greater influence but, despite producing school and college newspapers, a career in writing never looked likely. Instead he was off to Goldsmiths College for teacher training.
After college, John and his fellow newly qualified teachers were looking for employment somewhere beyond London. Nottingham, just a few hours away, was just the ticket. They’d seen the films – Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and Sons & Lovers – and heard the rumours – our ratio of women to men – but for John the biggest pull of all was the newly designed Nottingham Playhouse with its charismatic director John Neville, well, that and the cheap rent and promise of jobs.
It was to the west of Nottingham that John initially found work, at a secondary school in the small mining town of Heanor. Across the Erewash Valley was Eastwood, D H Lawrence country. A reader of Lawrence, John recognised the landscape of his daily commute, to a school where the boys would likely end up down the pit, the girls in hosiery factories. A teacher of English and drama, John was idealistic about the comprehensive project and enthusiastic for the arts. He may have been both organised and strict but he was not afraid to play the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to his students.
As the ‘60s tailed off, John left Nottingham to teach elsewhere but he’d soon be back, to study for an MA in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham. Before that, and after twelve years of teaching, John began writing for living. This was 1974 and pulp fiction was still the rage. The publisher New English Library wanted another biker book from Laurence James, an old college friend of John’s. Laurence suggested that John write the book instead. Why not, he was a well-read English teacher who had been looking for an alternative means of employment. Under his friend’s tutorage, and with a Hell’s Angels handbook to guide him, John wrote Avenging Angel: 50,000 words for £250. Another book followed in the next school holiday and this was the encouragement John needed to leave teaching and become a full-time jobbing writer. He would churn out whatever the publishers were buying, mostly westerns, about forty-five of them. Another month, another paperback. Those Buffalo Bill stories and trips to the cinema were really paying off. This was deep genre fiction with all its conventions and expectations.
Using pseudonyms John was able to write for different publishers. Those pen names also hid the fact that the books were often being written in tandem, sometimes the authors would alternate books, other times they’d share the writing. With over a dozen pen names how did John know which part of L.J. Coburn, J.D. Sandon, J.B. Dancer et cetera were him? He’d read the ending: if the characters rode off into the sunset it was probably the other guy, John’s endings were miserable.
From war books such as Kill Hitler to a teenage romance set in Mablethorpe John was in the tough deadline-hitting world of supplying the demand. He was being paid to practice, learning how to get readers to turn the page, appreciating the rhythm and understanding the narrative expectation.
A year into his westerns John wrote his first crime books, paying homage to the American hardboiled novels of his youth. John’s private eye would be in the shape of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Spenser and Mike Hammer, the sharp-tonged tough-guy out for justice or revenge; only John’s hero, Scott Mitchell, was transported to an English setting. With its Chandleresque metaphors and wisecracks, pulpy covers and Bob Dylan inspired titles, the influences were clear. The first of these (and the first book under the name John Harvey) was Amphetamines and Pearls. It’s mostly set in Nottingham and features the city’s (then) new central police station, and urban police work.
During the 1980s John began to write for television and radio, adapting classics (Anna of the Five Towns, The End of the Affair) and penning novelisations of films (Herbie Rides Again, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing) as well as writing for hit shows (Spender, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries). John remained a big reader and, in Elmore Leonard’s novels, was enjoying his crime fiction again. Leonard had moved from westerns to crime, applying his sense of fun to multi-storylines of gritty realism, not unlike the US cop show Hill Street Blues, which had also impressed John with its handling of story threads and a complexity of characters. Methodically stripping down one episode, John revealed its formula in order to write a new series for Central television, Hard Cases, featuring the officers and clients of the Probation Service, all set and filmed in Nottingham. By now Nottingham had adopted John and John had adopted Nottingham. As David Belbin can testify:
On the back of Hard Cases, John wanted to continue writing social realism with a strong sense of place, his influences included the working-class Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Ken Loach’s films and Z-Cars. Sjowall & Wahloo’s Martin Beck stories and William McIIvaney’s Laidlaw novels had shown that police procedurals could chronicle contemporary inner-city life. It was time for John to have a serious crack at crime fiction.
The demands were different from those years of writing pulp. John’s intent for the commercial remained – crime paid – but he would no longer have to write a book a month. With time to breathe John could get his head up and begin to think about his writing. But he needed a detective, a middle-management officer like Captain Furillo from Hill Street Blues, a loner at the heart of a team. John also recalled the Sergeant from the 1980 film (and novel) The Black Marble, the fallible, romantic and sentimental Valnikov, with his eastern European origin. Valnikov had John thinking that his detective could belong to Nottingham’s large Polish community; his family having migrating here during World War II. Charlie Resnick was born, a man who, like his creator, would be both an insider and an outsider.
Resnick is a little overweight, a little dishevelled, with missing buttons and cats rubbing at his shins; his shabby appearance a result of his dedication to the job as a conscientious copper with little time for grooming. Resnick’s first published outing was Lonely Hearts, a novel written with a series in mind, and later to be listed by The Times as one of the century’s best crime books. As Lonely Hearts hit the shelves, Ian Rankin – another crime writer influenced by the style of Elmore Leonard and the urban insights of William McIlvaney – was two books into his own crime series.
Ian Rankin has this birthday message for John:
Three years after Lonely Hearts the fledgling Resnick series made its way to our screens, a rarity at that time for contemporary crime fiction. John was involved in the casting of Tom Wilkinson as his protagonist. Even now, when John pictures Resnick he sees Tom’s face. Playing DC Mark Devine in the TV series was Billy Ivory, a fellow writer and, like John and Resnick, a big Notts County fan.
Between 1989 and 1997 there would be ten Resnick novels. Nottingham novels. John’s daily routine involved a walk into the heart of the city to sip coffee in the Victoria centre market. All the time his ears would be open to local voices: to conversations on the buses, the football terraces and local radio. His pen would be led by our characters; people on both sides of the law and those crossing the lines of legality and sanity. Life’s difficulties are front and centre, both private woes and social upheaval. The series follows Nottingham’s changing inner-city and its struggles with poverty, unemployment, domestic abuse, child abuse, violence, gun and knife crime, drugs and gang culture.
The crimes raise issues around public services and inequality but the politics are never forced. Instead the realism draws you in, helped by the careful, understated style in which the stories are told. This is both crime fiction and literature. The prose is tight, at times poetic, with importance placed on the sound of the words. And on the subject of sound there’s that jazz.
John had first experienced listening to live big band jazz in his early teens and attended his school’s jazz club before heading to the intimate clubs of North London, even playing tea-chest bass in a skiffle group. Jazz was cool and Resnick would be a convert. The music he listens to may even be seen as a reflection of his own feelings, adding to the mood of the series. Jazz would stay with Resnick as it has remained with his creator. After finishing his last Resnick book John gave a celebratory reading of poetry & prose in Lowdham, all to the beat of his jazz group Second Nature, just one of many visits to Notts. Five Leaves’ Ross Bradshaw hosted the event.
As for the books’ procedural detail, John had the guiding hand of a retired detective superintendent who allowed him to capture the practical workings of a police team. As the series progressed, Resnick’s role changed. He gradually became more isolated, a witness from the wings. Less so his ever-complex love life which seemed to be ending on a high in 1998’s Last Rites which, at the time, looked like the final Resnick book.
Fans of the series, Stephen Booth and his wife Lesley were sad to see Last Rites being billed as “Charlie Resnick’s final case”.
Stephen Booth tells us about the first time he spoke to John Harvey, his hero:
With Resnick set aside John took his love of jazz to the pages of a new crime novel In a True Light, in which his protagonist gets to see Thelonious Monk live. Back in his pulp days he even had one of his mercenaries tracking Charlie Parker around New York, and his fist Resnick short story, Now’s The Time, took its title from Parker.
Short stories were providing John with a testing ground for new characters, a chance to take them for a walk, to see if they make it. His Grayson and Walker books, featuring an overstretched Homicide & Serious Crime team, sprung from the short story Snow, Snow, Snow, whilst his Frank Elder series emerged from the short Due North published in Crime in the City, a 2003 CWA Anthology, edited by Martin Edwards (the current CWA Chair), a fan of John’s long and short fiction.
Fedora is one of John’s Jack Kiley stories featuring the former footballer come private eye, another sleuth founded in the short form.
Both Elder and Grayson allowed John to write about parenthood. The first Frank Elder novel, Flesh & Blood, won the CWA Silver Dagger in 2004. At the heart of the book (and series) is the relationship between Elder and his troubled teenage daughter. Elder has quit the Nottinghamshire Police Force and, following a family crisis, retired to Cornwall (where John briefly lived). In these dark novels John handles complex narratives while his characters struggle to handle their emotions. Universally recognised familial challenges are movingly explored giving the stories a timeless quality. The powerful Elder series concluded in 2018 with a fourth book Body and Soul.
Charlie Resnick continued to appear in short stories and made cameos, even popped up in Elder novel, but there were no plans for book eleven. Then John returned to Nottingham and got to know the city again leading to Resnick’s powerful comeback in 2008, in the haunting Cold in Hand. And the series couldn’t stop at eleven! The final, final, Resnick book came in 2014. The idea for Darkness, Darkness, was sparked by a chat with David Peace, the author of GB84. Taking Resnick back to that time of the miners’ strike proved too tempting to ignore. The book was structured with split timelines allowing a soon-to-be-retired Resnick the chance to reflect on the turmoil of those times, his role in them and how a fractured Nottinghamshire is coping in the aftermath. As John has said, “There is nothing wrong with telling a good story well. And if you can say something about the world at the same time, that’s not a bad achievement.”
Together with the director Jack McNamara of New Perspectives, John worked on a stage version of Darkness, Darkness which made its première in 2016 at Nottingham Playhouse. Powerful and poignant the play cleverly found a way for Resnick to reveal his thoughts as he revisits his memories. The theatre’s Artistic Director at that time was Giles Croft.
Resnick is John’s favourite character and there’s much of the author in his hero. You could find either having a pint at The Peacock or listening to lunchtime jazz in The Bell, or perhaps sat on a slab square bench, a cup of coffee in one hand, a deli sandwich in the other, getting ready to go off to listen to Monk.
John is also an acclaimed and widely published poet. His collections include Ghosts of a Chance, Bluer Than This and Out of Silence. Between 1977 and 1999 John ran Slow Dancer Press publishing poetry and prose. In addition to its stylish magazine Slow Dancer held live poetry readings.
The London poet, author, singer and performer Hylda Sims has written a special acrostic for John’s 80th. You can read it HERE.
During John’s years as editor, Slow Dancer published 30 issues, including work by the American poets Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds. He was also one of the first to publish work by Simon Armitage and Sue Dymoke, the latter becoming Slow Dancer’s Associate Poetry Editor.
Sue Dymoke tells us:
As patron of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature, and Bromley House Library’s Immediate Past President, John has continued his support of our poets and writers. Despite living in London, he makes regular visits to Nottingham, attending a range of events. He has received an honorary degree (Doctor of Letters) from the University of Nottingham, in recognition of his achievements and links to the city.
Back in 2007 John’s sustained excellence in crime fiction was rewarded with a Diamond Dagger, the CWA’s lifetime achievement award. It’s one of many awards that he and his books have gathered. Published far and wide his novels are loved by crime readers and aficionados alike. One of the world’s eminent crime reviewers is Barry Forshaw.
Now eighty John has lived as long as Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence put together, and he joins them, and a handful of others, at the top table of Nottinghamshire writers. The authenticity of John’s work not only captures the state of society it explores but what it’s like to be human; our instincts and emotions, and the nature of love, loss and memory, all done with style and compassion.
There is nothing wrong with telling a good story well. And if you can say something about the world at the same time, that’s not a bad achievement.
Happy birthday John, from all in Nottingham.