As a native of Nottingham, I occasionally wonder whether there’s something in the East Midlands air that’s particularly conducive to the writing of fiction. I haven’t investigated the statistics so could be entirely wrong, but my impression is that, per head of population, the city may have produced more novelists of note than anywhere in England (in the British Isles, I suspect Edinburgh or Dublin might give it a run for its money, but those are national capitals in their own right). There’s D H Lawrence, of course, and Alan Sillitoe. But there are also Robert Harris, Juile Myerson and the much-underrated Stanley Middleton There were Helen Cresswell and Geoffrey Trease, who wrote mainly for young people. It’s probably too much of a stretch to include those who just happened to live in Nottingham for a while, such as J M Barrie, Graham Greene or B S Johnson. But it’s probably reasonable to include those who were born elsewhere but have chosen to live in and write extensively about the city. Which brings us to John Harvey.
I believe that John Harvey is now living in London, but he’s spent much of his adult life living in Nottingham and the majority of his terrific crime fiction is set in the city. His work captures the spirit of the city in much the same way (although addressing very different subject matter) as Stanley Middleton’s. And, though I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is, there is something unique about that spirit. Nottingham is unashamedly – no, proudly – provincial, Middle England in an almost literal sense, but with a history of radicalism (while also being the city where King Charles raised the Royalist standard in the Civil War). In recent years, it’s become sadly notorious for violence and gun-crime, but also has a cultural life that’s second to none. It contains multitudes. I’ve not lived there for nearly 30 years, though I’ve family and close friends who still do, and I still carry a torch for the place.
For me, then, the perfectly-realised Nottingham setting of Harvey’s books is an added joy. But I’d be a fan wherever he set them (unless it was Derby, perhaps – there are limits). For my money, along with Reginald Hill, he’s the best crime writer we have in the UK. Like Hill, he’s always a safe pair of hands, a consummate craftsman, and very often a lot more. I read all his books, though I’m not quite keeping up with him (again like Hill, he somehow seems to write faster than I can read), so I’ve just got around to his 2008 novel, Cold in Hand, which marked the return of his long-time hero, Charlie Resnick. It’s a fine book, beautifully constructed, neatly plotted, filled with memorable characters and scenes. Harvey has a marvellous capacity to create rounded figures in just a few lines of description and dialogue, and he explores a wide-range of environments in a way that rarely feels forced or unconvincing. His prose is unobtrusive but always a joy to read. And this book, without revealing any of the plot, is genuinely moving.
I had the pleasure of hearing Harvey speak at the 2009 Crimefest, as well as the even greater pleasure of chatting to him afterwards (mainly about D H Lawrence and my home town of Eastwood). He’s a rare beast these days in that he’s succeeded in making a living as a jobbing writer, who learnt his craft churning out paperback fiction before maturing into a genuine artist. It’s only in recent years that his work has received the attention and readership it deserves. While we’re lavishing praise on the modish Scandinavians or whatever comes into vogue next, we shouldn’t lose sight of the massive talents in our own backyard. And Harvey’s definitely one of those. Even if he does support the wrong football team.