The teacher who turned to crime writing
Dan Carrier talks to John Harvey about his latest novel... and his time as a purveyor of violent pulp fiction .
21 June, 2018
Crime writer John Harvey
WHEN the badly beaten body of celebrated artist Anthony Winter is found in his Kentish Town studio, the police have a number of leads – and one they seem intent on following focuses on the relationship between the painter and a life model he uses.
She happens to be the daughter of retired detective Frank Elder – drawing the cop into investigating who wished the painter ill.
Elder is the creation of NW5-based bestselling crime writer John Harvey. He has brought us such seminal detective figures as Charlie Resnick – a 12-volume series – and four books featuring Elder as the lead.
In his latest novel, Body and Soul, Elder has fallen on hard times. He has retired to Cornwall where he struggles to come to terms with the harrowing experiences of his professional career. To say much more would be a plot spoiler in what is a classic page-turner, packed with twists, turns and suspense – everything a good crime novel should be.
And that much of the action takes place in NW5 will not surprise John’s fans. His Resnick novels are set in Nottingham, where he lived while he wrote them, while Elder has a London flavour, reflecting the neighbourhood its creator knows so well.
“The social realist in me wanted to give the book a sense of place,” he says. “That means I look to base the stories in a place I know.
“Hopefully, even if you don’t know the area they are set in, they give the characters a sense that they genuinely belong somewhere. That familiarity lends credence to the story. If you get the simple details right, the book becomes more believable.”
And Camden is where he has spent much of his life. John grew up in Tufnell Park and Camden Town, and went to St Aloysius school. He trained as a teacher and taught English and Drama for 12 years.
“I enjoyed it,” he recalls. “But I had a friend, Laurence James, who was writing for the New English Library imprint. They were quite a big deal in the 1970s. They did a lot of violent pulp fiction. I’d visit him and think – he has a nice way to earn a living. He kept saying to me ‘why don’t you try it?’”
Laurence was writing a series about biker gangs and had been asked by his publishers to write another – but he was busy, so he turned to John.
Some of Mr Harvey’s earlier titles
“I did an outline and a sample chapter,” he says.
“It was called Avenging Angel, and came out under the name Thom Ryder. They paid me £200 and asked me for another. “I thought – OK, this is good. I resigned from teaching and thought I’d have a go at being pulp fiction writer.”
The books he wrote ranged from biker gangs to the Old West. There had been a renaissance in the Western genre and it was a style of storytelling he knew well – as a child he had been taken by his parents to watch a film every Friday night.
“My father Tom was mad keen on Westerns,” he remembers. “We’d go to Forum, the Gaumont, the Plaza to watch them. I would play cowboys and indians up the Heath. It meant when I came to write them, I knew the elements they needed.
“Laurence and I wrote a lot of Westerns, taking it in turns to write under the name John J McLaglen. There was a big market for them. I’d write 12, 13 a year, each about 50,000 words. The person on the jacket always looked a little like Clint Eastwood.”
From there he went on to write for television, adapting Arnold Bennett novels, and then creating his own series. This opened the doors to the Charlie Resnick books.
“I wrote a series for Central TV called Hard Cases,” he says. “I based it on Hill Street Blues.
“It was about the probation service. We filmed it on location and it gave me the idea that I could create crime fiction based in Nottingham, where I was living.”
The city was an inspiration – helped by its literary history of DH Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe.
“I wanted to write about provincial England. It became a way for me to combine social realism and crime fiction,” he says. “I wanted to write about someone of the city – but not quite of the city, so I gave Resnick Polish parents. They had come here as displaced persons after the war. Charlie went to school in Nottingham but speaks Polish at home. I wanted someone who knew the city but could still be an outsider.
“He loved jazz and ate strange sandwiches that he got from a Polish market stall.”
Resnick was such a big seller John would get letters from fans around the world, suggesting tunes he might like – and like Frank Elder, has become a hero in the genre.
“Resnick is compassionate – that is his overwhelming characteristic,” he adds.
“He cares for people. People like him – readers feel they a sense of ownership. Women want to look after him and men want to lend him their favourite jazz records.”
• Body and Soul. By John Harvey, William Heinemann, £14.99.