Author of the Month

Name: John Harvey

First Novel:

Most Recent Book: Good Bait

'‘Good Bait’ is exactly that – it will catch you, reel you in and nothing can save you...'

On a freezing December morning a young Moldovan teen is found dead on Hampstead Heath. Karen Shields is given the case despite being stretched to the nth degree with other cases. But for Karen, it will be a long and tortuous journey as the machinations of this crime take on a far deadlier and bigger problem than the death of a young man. Soon Karen and her team will be involved in a world of drug smuggling and prostitution and running with the bad, big men who think of nothing about the innocents they sell on the streets. Under intense pressure, Karen must get to the bottom of this investigation before she is quite literally ‘hung out to dry’.

Something Shields doesn’t know is that DI Corden from Penzance is dealing with his own bag of trouble. A young girl he knew years ago has vanished. Her mother, Maxine searches out for Corden to find Letitia. A job he is reticent to accept. When Maxine dies in London trying to find her daughter, Corden decides to take a holiday and find out exactly what is going on. Soon he is on the run and doesn’t even realise the parallel path he is taking with a current police investigation in London. And very soon his and Shields worlds will collide.

It is always the sign of a master craftsman that the moment you read the first sentence you are hooked: then the first paragraph and then the first page. And before you know it, a hundred pages have flown by. That is the wonderful part of ‘Good Bait’ is that it is unrelenting from the get go, but without sacrificing its characters for plot, or ‘dumbing down’ the writing in any way. ‘Good Bait’ is an extremely well-written, crafted novel with well rounded characters that the reader can sympathise and empathise with. Karen Shields is an excellent character who takes centre stage in Harvey’s latest book. An interesting woman with many issues, some which get explored and others not: but since when has life been so easy that we sort out all our problems in the matter of a few months? For me, I like the fact she was feisty and yet vulnerable at the same time, making her a woman first and a copper second.

Corden who plays out the parallel part of the strand that winds its way serpentinely through the story is a man who doesn’t strike you as a maverick, but is definitely a man with a conscience, finding a young woman and keeping her from harm – something he couldn’t do his own son. With incredible panache Harvey continues the two strands, bravely keeping them both separate and yet at the same time keeping both sequences of equal interest. As with Harvey’s books, there is a strain of Jazz threading its way in to the tapestry of the book, lending it its own soundtrack of grief, anger and love. Harvey kicks off 2012 with a thought provoking and inspired book that will tumble around your mind days after it has been finished. ‘Good Bait’ is exactly that – it will catch you, reel you in and nothing can save you until the last page is read.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
Different things for different people; different strokes for different folks. When I read I’m far less interested in plot than I am in character, though I do need the plot to have its own logic and for it to be resolved in a believable way.

For me, a great crime novel would have the same virtues as a great novel : good characterisation and dialogue and, perhaps above all, a sense that the writer takes pleasure in, as well as being in control of, the rhythms of the language, from the shape of a chapter to the sound of a sentence- Bill James’ “Roses, Roses” would be a good example.
By and large, the crime novels I rate most highly are those which use the form to comment on, make some kind of revelation about the society in which they are set. Thus, to take a few examples :

Raymond Chandler – “The Big Sleep”
K. C. Constantine – “The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes” or “Blood Mud”
George V. Higgins – “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”
William McIvanney – “Laidlaw”
Walter Mosley – “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned”
Peter Temple – “The Broken Shore” or “Truth”
Brian Thompson – ‘Ladder of Angels”
Daniel Woodrell – “Give Us a Kiss” or “Winter’s Bone”

Mind you, there are some pretty wonderful examples where the social content is low and the other virtues are strong, strong, strong :

James Crumley – “The Last Good Kiss”
Thomas Harris – “The Silence of the Lambs”
Elmore Leonard – “La Brava”
2) At the beginning of your career as a writer you hid behind a number of pseudonyms. Why the prolific amount of disguises?
Oh, easy. I was writing in a number of different areas – westerns, crime, war, teenage fiction, movie novelisations – basically anything I could sell – and it was clearer and more useful for both myself and the number of publishers for whom I was working to have different names for those different incarnations.

Also, most of the westerns were written in collaboration with a close group of friends – Laurence James, Angus Wells, Terry Harknett. We would often work on the same series under a joint pen name, most often writing alternate books; so, Laurence and I wrote 26 “Herne the Hunters” as John J. McLagen, Angus and I wrote 10 “Gringos” as J.D.Sandon.
3) ‘Good Bait’ has DCI Karen Shields investigating the death of a young Moldovan boy. At the same time DI Trevor Corden is involved with the disappearance of a young woman that eventually gets entangled with Shields’ own investigation. Was this plotline you adding your voice to the constant stream of news about gang culture and illegal immigrants?
Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I’d say that part of the book – the London-based part – tries to reflect the times and culture within which it is set. As someone living in a fairly central part of London with a pretty mixed community – someone who, on his way to watch Spurs, frequently walks along the same Tottenham High Road where the recent riots had their beginning – and someone who serves as a governor in a local comprehensive school – it’s impossible for me not to be aware to some degree of the influence and spread of gang culture amongst young people, and, therefore, to want to give it some expression – as I’ve done in a number of other books and short stories. Likewise, the infiltration of high-level criminals into the country is something I’ve dealt with before – for instance, in ‘Cold in Hand”. Having read that paragraph through, I realise I’m in danger of sounding pompous, but I’ll let it stand.
4) DCI Karen Shields is a young, attractive black woman. Was this a deliberate move to give a different perspective on the story about the illegal immigrants?
About Karen, she has appeared prominently in two previous books, “Ash & Bone” (2005), the second of the three Frank Elder books, and “Cold in Hand” (2008), the most recent Resnick book. In both of those, she runs an important part of the investigation, without being the main character, so “Good Bait” is a chance for her to step up into a central role. I’d always enjoyed writing about her in the past, and thought this would be a good chance to do so at more length, without necessarily thinking there was something about the Eastern European aspects of the story that would suit her presence – far more to the point are those sections of the book which deal with gang crime and violence within the black community.
5) I greatly enjoyed Shields as a character and thought Ramsden, although a small part in ‘Good Bait’ could easily have his own book. But you are well-known for not lingering on series characters for long (except Charlie Resnick). Will we see Shields and Ramsden in the next John Harvey book? And if so, will more be revealed about Karen’s ethnic background?
This is the third time I’ve written about Shields (and Ramsden) and although I have no plans at present to write about them again, who can say? As for Karen’s ethnic background, some information was in the earlier books, though that is amplified, I believe, here, with her reasons for joining the police closely linked to her family and her experiences of growing up as a young black woman in London.
6) In ‘Good Bait’ there are two main strands to the story and yet both tie up towards the end. Is it a difficult process writing in this fashion and was it easy/difficult to make sure Shields and Corden were given equal status in the novel to give both story lines credence?
Yes, it’s difficult! In fact, I more or less abandoned the novel with around 40,000 words written, as I couldn’t see a clear and believable way of bringing the stories together. Fortunately, the moment, more or less, that I set it aside and stopped worrying about it, a solution seemed to appear.

It’s harder, but more interesting – more challenging, I suppose. Whether it’s more rewarding for the reader – or merely more confusing – is not for me to say.
7) It is always difficult for a man to write a woman’s part. How did you make sure you hit the right notes with Karen?
Actually, I don’t find it particularly difficult. I’ve almost always had quite strong and prominent female characters in my books, though it’s true to say that, some of my early young adult fiction aside, they haven’t been at the absolute centre.

More difficult here was writing about a character with a different cultural background, which I tried to get around through some reading and through showing early drafts to black female friends.
8) In your books there is normally a Jazz soundtrack to your novels. Does the music of Jazz influence you when writing?
Not noticeably, I don’t think, although some critics in the past have suggested there are links with the rhythms and dislocations of some jazz and jazz musicians. I never listen to jazz, for instance – nor any other kind of music – while I’m writing, but since I do listen to it much of the rest of the time, it’s only reasonable to suppose it’s infiltrated it’s way under my skin.
9) As mentioned before, Resnick is the character you have stuck with the most, even bringing out a novel ten years after ‘Last Rites’. What is it about Resnick that made you stay in his company for so long?
I like him. He was the first character I wrote about at length in connection with the city of Nottingham, where I’ve lived for several periods of my adult life, and that connection is important to me. It is – or was – the city I knew, and liked, best and, having written about him now in 11 novels and a number of short stories, I feel the same about him.
I feel that I know, in any given situation, how he might react, what he might feel. What music he might pull down from the shelf.
10) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
Impossible! Any one of those I list in answer to your first question, all of which I have read and continue to reread a number of times.