John Harvey: following a Nottinghamshire tradition
Ever since Lord Byron picked up a pen more than 200 years ago, Nottinghamshire has had an almost unmatched reputation for producing quality authors. D H Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe continued the tradition. But none of them could match John Harvey for longevity or prolificacy.
Many people know Harvey as the creator of Charlie Resnick, the detective of Polish descent who successfully rids the streets of Nottingham of all sorts of disreputable, vividly drawn criminals. But over a 40-year writing career Harvey has penned more than 100 titles, at one point producing books at the staggering rate of one a month; a Resnick story was named by The Times as one of the best 100 crime novels of the last century; and he was given an award by the Crime Writers’ Association for “sustained excellence in crime writing”.
Yet Harvey became a writer almost by accident. After living in Nottingham and teaching at Aldercar School in Heanor, he “fell into” writing when encouraged by a friend to have a go.
John Harvey gave a talk at Mickleover Library as part of Derby Book Festival at the beginning of June, regaling the audience with tales of how he came to write the Resnick series, why his latest Resnick story Darkness Darkness is the detective’s last and how his greatest creation will appear next year on stage at Nottingham Playhouse.
He looked much younger than his 76 years and spoke with tremendous enthusiasm and warmth about his life and career.
A few days later I spoke to him at his home in London to find out more about how he moved from the vibrant atmosphere of a classroom to the solitary, isolated world of a writer.
Somebody from Corgi Books rang me and said they were looking for someone to write a western series. Was I interested? Of course I said yes.
He told me he really enjoyed working at Aldercar School because it was his first job and the kids were great.
But after being in the profession for 12 years he began to get restless and had to decide whether to apply for bigger, better jobs. At the same time a friend who had become a writer was unable to produce a 50,000-word novel about Hell’s Angels that his publishers were expecting. He thought John might be able to write it. The result was a 128-page paperback, Avenging Angel, written by John under the nom de plume Thom Ryder, and published in 1975.
“I didn’t know anything about Hell’s Angels but that never stopped me,” said John. “I got paid £250 for Avenging Angel and the publishers liked it so much they offered me £300 to write a second, Angel Alone. I handed in my notice at the school I was working at, thinking I could always go back to it if the writing didn’t work.
“Shortly after that somebody from Corgi Books rang me and said they were looking for someone to write a western series. Was I interested? Of course I said yes. So I ended up writing 40 or so westerns over the next few years.”
His output was phenomenal, even if you consider that those westerns were about half the size of a modern novel.
“I produced one book a month. If you sit down every morning and don’t get up until you’ve done the requisite number of words, do that six days a week and the words are eventually there.
“The nice thing about writing formulaic fiction, which westerns are, is that you don’t have to think too deeply about the plot. There are only a few plots so you sit down, enjoy yourself and get on with it.”
John’s career really took off with Lonely Hearts, the first Resnick book, in 1989. He had written a number of crime novels that were not particularly successful and did not think he would tackle the genre again.
But he had read a lot of crime fiction and by then had written a six-part series for Central Television about the probation service called Hard Cases.
“That gave me the idea that I would like to try to write some kind of police procedural story set in Nottingham. I knew the city fairly well because I’d been living there for quite a time by then. I wrote between 10,000 and 20,000 words and someone at Viking Penguin was kind enough to offer me a contract to do the rest.”
Resnick shares John’s love of jazz. John started going to jazz clubs in the late 1950s at the time of the trad jazz boom.
“People like Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber were getting records in the charts. It was what you did, go and have a glass of beer and meet girls – you went to jazz clubs.
“It was also after the lifting of a union ban that American musicians couldn’t play in this country. So suddenly there were people like Duke Ellington and Count Basie over here in this country, and then more modern musicians like Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. You went to see them if you were lucky.”
Despite Lonely Hearts being listed as one of the 100 best crime novels of the last century, John feels it is not his best work.
“I think it was chosen by The Times not for that one particular book but because it was the first of what became quite a significant series. It was one of the first books to try to marry a kind of regional urban realism with crime.
“For me, some of the more recent Resnicks like Darkness Darkness and Cold In Hand are better books because they’re more complex, there’s more going on in them and hopefully I’ve got a bit better as a writer.
“The trouble with writing a book a year, which is what I was doing for that first ten years, is that it’s difficult to maintain the same standards. I think most people who write series books will tell you this: they may be not quite as good as they should be because there’s a time pressure on you to get the books to the publisher.”
This was 1992, about the time of the first Prime Suspect. In those days people weren’t used to gritty crime dramas where the dead bodies looked like dead bodies
John had decided that Last Rites, the tenth Resnick novel, would be the final one. But later he wanted to write a book about bereavement and decided that Charlie Resnick would be the best character to suffer a huge personal loss. Cold in Hand was the result. Then he thought about a 12th book.
“I knew the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike was coming up. The miners’ strike of course was a really big deal in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. So I thought that was a perfect subject for what would really be the last Resnick.
“The book yoyos back and forward over 30 years, so it gives me a chance to have Resnick near the beginning of his career and the end of his career within the same book. So that seemed a nice way of summing things up.”
Apart from Resnick, John Harvey also created the character of Frank Elder, a former Nottinghamshire police inspector, who appeared in three novels including Flesh and Blood which picked up an award for best British crime novel of the year.
John has also written a number of short stories, the latest of which, Ask Me Now, has just been published in an anthology called These Seven. It features seven Nottingham-connected writers and the book is part of the Big City Read, a national initiative to “bring reading to those who might otherwise miss out”. John thinks “it’s one of the better stories I’ve done lately”.
He also writes poetry and had his own publishing company, Slow Dancer, for 20-odd years. In the end John got too busy to carry on with the company; it was typical of the man that he would rather close it down than do it badly.
But for many people John Harvey and Charlie Resnick are synonymous. Strangely only two of the books were turned into television programmes and they have yet to be released on DVD or repeated on a satellite channel. This is despite having charismatic Tom Wilkinson in the title role.
John wrote the scripts for the television adaptations of both Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment. He acknowledges that Wilkinson’s performance was “smashing” but overall the programmes were “a bit too dour and downbeat”.
He says: “This was 1992, about the time of the first Prime Suspect. In those days people weren’t used to gritty crime dramas where the dead bodies looked like dead bodies.
“I think we didn’t do ourselves any favours by not varying the mood more. We shot ourselves in the foot. But otherwise I enjoyed the whole experience. It was great filming on location in Nottingham.”
John still makes regular journeys back to Nottingham from his home in north London, mainly to watch his favourite football team Notts County.
It’s the first time I’ve ever tried writing a stage play. It’s been a learning experience but a good one
He will also be making several trips next year as he is adapting Darkness Darkness for the stage. It will be renamed Out of Darkness when it opens at Nottingham Playhouse in autumn 2016. It will be produced by New Perspectives Theatre Company which will afterwards take it on a regional tour.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever tried writing a stage play. It’s been a learning experience but a good one,” says John.
He is showing no signs of slowing down as he is currently reworking two crime novels for BBC Radio 4 about a Chinese detective called Inspector Chen. They are due to be broadcast later this year.
You can expect the stage play and the radio adaptations to be as gripping and graphic as his other offerings. As Bill Ott said in Booklist, an American magazine that reviews books: “Nobody writes police procedurals better than John Harvey. Nobody.”
* This article appeared in the August 2015 edition of Country Images magazine