The Short Version: DC Nick Belsey has used up pretty much all of his nine lives – he’s bankrupt, homeless, drunk, and pretty well screwed. When a rich businessman dies (apparently suicide), Belsey tries to slip on the man’s identity for long enough to get some money and get out of London. But it turns out the dead businessman was into way more than Belsey realized – and other people are after the dead man’s money too…
The Review: Let me start off with a quick apology to the fine folks at Harper (and, by extension, to Oliver Harris) – I got an ARC of this book last fall and it slipped through a crack somewhere and I only just found it and got to reading it. And I’m sorry for that – because I would’ve loved to be trumpeting this book when it hit shelves all those months ago.
It starts off simple enough and you sort of anticipate what you’re in for: a hard-living detective with a drinking problem, he doesn’t play by the rules, he’s a loose cannon, etc etc etc. And Harris, to his credit, allows the reader to indulge this line of prediction while slowly working to pull the rug out one stitch at a time. Because while most of the detectives we know and love in the modern crime world (looking at you first & foremost, Harry Hole) like to bend the rules and are sometimes less-than-exemplary human beings… at the end of the day, you’d have to say that they’re all good people. You believe in their goodness – whereas DC Belsey is much more of an anti-hero. I genuinely don’t know if he’s necessarily good… although I’d be forced to say that he isn’t bad, he’s not a bad guy. He is, perhaps, a bad-pause-guy, though.
I’m trying to think of the last book I read where the hero so blatantly flaunts authority and engages in corrupt activity and isn’t saddled with an epithet like “gentleman thief” or something. This guy is a cop. He’s not crooked but he sure ain’t straight, either – and it’s surprisingly refreshing here. Harris has done a great job making it feel different from the average procedural. In this genre, there’s nothing new under the sun but this comes pretty close – for me, at least.
The plot itself is convoluted and Belsey’s barely aware of just how big the game is throughout most of the book. Even at the end, there are a whole lot of things coming together in a way that sort of feels like Harris is hoping people won’t look too closely at the level of coincidences and lucky breaks. But that’d take the fun out of the book – so don’t do it. Just enjoy the ride that’s been provided. If you’re at the end of the book, you can’t start asking questions because by that point, you’ve already not-asked-questions about the fact that Belsey basically steals a dead man’s identity and home and nobody really notices it.
Of course, its rare that fiction is stranger than truth – I could see this story (maybe sans the sniper) playing out in real life with very little convincing needed. It’s no surprise to anyone anywhere that cops and reporters sometimes use less-than-kosher methods to get information and it is DEFINITELY no surprise that bankers and businessmen are the shadiest of the shady and still, five years after the market tanked, getting away with it. And would it really surprise anyone if the City of London had actually considered a larger and more legal gambling venue? I won’t tell you what or where because it’s a rather delightful reveal in the book – I laughed, partly in humor and partly in shock – but I mean… I’m just saying, I could see it.
In addition to the breakneck plotting and the main character who you can’t help be interested in (even if it’s just to see how he’s going to fall off this particularly high and thin wire he’s on), the writing is full of almost-Pratchettian asides and sly remarks. They aren’t overwhelming – in fact, they’re really rather rare. But there’s a humor – a British humor, you might say – that sits comfortably underneath the entire novel and sometimes it bubbles to the surface and smacks you with a quip like “it was irritating, finding yourself involved in a crime when all you were doing was being a pimp.” There’s a confidence that underlines such writing and it allows Harris to get away with driving 130mph towards Stansted while you’re comfortably seated in the back. Usually at such speeds, there are nerves (on the part of the passenger/reader) – but here, the feeling was much rather ‘excitement’ at the prospect of whatever was going to happen next.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Knocking off a point for the denouement (okay, I HAD to think about it in order to write this review and it DOES come off a little slapdash) and for some general first book jitters… I like the cast of characters that’s been set up. I like DC Belsey, scummy man though he may be. I like Oliver Harris’ writing style – and I like the way he looks at London. He doesn’t rub London in your face, but rather just allows it to exist as a backdrop for the events unfolding. I promise I’ll be more timely with the next one – because I’m already itching to read it.